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- SEC commissioner Mike Slive expects vote on adding 9th SEC football game at spring meetings
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- Dakari Johnson’s mother appreciates opportunities her son had, looks forward to future at UK
- Kentucky center Dakari Johnson to return for sophomore season
- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops not only watches Kentucky practice, but puts on UK pullover
By LARRY VAUGHT
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive certainly seems like he is anticipating that SEC schools may well vote to add a ninth conference game — a move that would not seem to be in Kentucky’s favor.
Slive told the Associated Press Sports Editors Southeast Region Association that he expects SEC presidents and chancellors to vote on whether to add a ninth league game before spring meetings May 27-30 in Destin, Fla.
He said possible scenarios to be considered include eight games or nine games, with or without permanent inter-division opponents. “We’ve shown them that with all the formats every one of them has advantages and disadvantages,” the commissioner said.Maybe nine games would be an advantage for the elite SEC teams, but for many — like Kentucky — it certainly would seem to make the job Mark Stoops faces even more daunting.
By LARRY VAUGHT
There have been times that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has had a few shots for Southeastern Conference football. However, he had no trouble putting on a Kentucky pullover Wednesday while watching his brother’s team at UK practice.
“No, he was cold,” UK coach Mark Stoops told reporters. “They like to support us. He’s proud to wear it. I’m sure he’ll take that home with him.”
His brother, Mike, the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, was also present for practice. The only brother missing was Ron, an assistant coach at Youngstown State.
The UK coach wanted his brothers to offer advice — and they even did during practice. More was expected to follow in the film room.
“That’s what there here for. I mean, they’re not here just for fun. We’ve got to put them to work,” Mark Stoops said. “So, absolutely that’s what we constantly do. We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment.
“So it’s good to have them here. I’m definitely going to utilize them while they’re here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done.”
Stoops’ brothers were not the only coaches at practice. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, who knows Bob Stoops, also stopped by.
“He had some time this morning to come out and say hi and see my brothers and stop in and see a little bit of practice,” Mark Stoops said. “It was good to see him out here.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coaches hope that both Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are future NFL defensive ends. That’s why having Indianapolis Colts defensive end Bjoern Werner, who played for coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator E.J. Eliot at Florida State, in Lexington for a few days during spring practice has been a bonus.
“We love Bjoern. He’s just a great friend of ours. So we look him up whenever we’re in Indianapolis . We got say hi to him, have dinner with him. And he came in to see us and say hello and just be around,” said Stoops. “It means a lot to us. We build strong relationships with these guys and appreciate them coming by and saying hi and then just saying a few words, talking to the team, talking to some of the defensive guys and giving them some words of wisdom. It always helps.”
It should especially help Dupree and Smith to hear what Stoops can do for them.
“It’s really good. And it was nice to have Bjoern and just ask him questions. He watched film with us as a defensive staff and just some of the pointers that they talked with him about. And yeah, he liked the way Bud was coming off the ball the other day,” Stoops said.
Eliot calls Werner a “special person” who can influence young players.
“Bjoern is a special person in the fact that his commitment and his work ethic to not only football but everything he does in his life is tremendous,” Eliot said. “I think that not only his example, but the message that he can deliver is outstanding and it’s something that young men can really follow.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Coach Mark Stoops thought Kentucky’s offense “took a little step back” in Friday’s practice.
“Didn’t have as good a practice as I’d have liked. Got back to some drops, which put us behind the chains a little bit,” Stoops said. “Good energy from the defense, again, we need to offense to continue to progress. Today was not our sharpest day, but we got a lot of good work in and looking forward to wrapping it up here next week and getting some good practices in next week to finish off spring.”
Stoops said the offense had a variety of problems.
“Just, just getting behind the chains, drops, maybe first-and-10 had some good play actions, balls batted down, so as you know — you saw it last year and it’s the same right now — we get behind the chains, we’re not very efficient,” Stoops said.
“Defense made some good plays. I think it’s a combination, and we’ll go watch the film. But it’s not always, and that’s what I told the defense, we had good energy and they’re playing good, but it’s not always because we’re playing stellar. Maybe the offense is not executing like they can. It’s a little combination of both.”
By ASHLEY SCOBY
Landon Foster’s life is a contradiction.
With a self-described job of kicking “not even a one-pound ball,” he is still one of the biggest gym rats he knows. He’s a perfectionist in an imperfect sport. And he plays football even though the majority of people he sees on campus thinks he plays baseball.
Foster, Kentucky’s starting punter since he stepped on campus in 2011, is used to all of the contradictions, though, because that’s just the life of a special teamer.
“We like to joke about it, just taking on the specialist’s role,” Foster said.
That role has included contributing to the @UK_Specialists Twitter handle, where the punters, long snappers and kickers post pictures from the weight room captioned “curls for the girls” and joke about which guy should get a tattoo to improve the group’s street cred.
More than anything, the specialist’s role includes a pursuit of flawlessness. A busted offensive play can turn into something miraculous if a team has superior athletes on the field who can make something out of nothing. But if it’s a busted punt or kick, it’s busted, and fans know it.
“We have one kick and every time we go out there, we have one time to be perfect,” Foster said. “Everyone is watching. As a punter, as a snapper, as a kicker, you’re the operation. No one’s really watching the blocking or anything.”
As part of that desire (and need) to be perfect, Foster and other special teamers have reaped the benefits of Erik Korem’s High Performance program, like the rest of the team has by now too. Foster said his body fat percentage went down to 10 percent (from 15 percent).
But for guys like Foster, whose job is to catch a long snap, drop the ball at exactly the right angle and boom it 40 yards down the field, putting on needless pounds of muscle isn’t what Korem is prescribing.
Instead, Foster is focusing on hip flexor mobility and quick-twitch muscle work that can help him improve on his – imagine this – specialty.
“Obviously we’re not going to be in the trenches with the linemen so why are we going to be in the weight room squatting 400 or 500 pounds?” he said.
Foster has plenty of actual game productivity to build on. He was named a Freshman All-SEC player by the SEC coaches his first year, as well as first-team Freshman All-American by Scout.com and second-team Freshman All-American by CollegeFootballNews.com.
All of those accolades, and people still don’t recognize Foster as the all-league punter that he is.
“When I wear Kentucky athletic stuff, I always get asked if I’m a baseball player,” he said. “I played one year of baseball and that was like my third-grade year.”
Sometimes, Foster will milk the situation, and listen to what fans have to say about the program while he’s still unidentified as part of the team. At the youth soccer games he referees on the weekends, Foster has heard from a fan how nice of a guy head coach Mark Stoops is, and how he should really meet him sometime.
“I just go along with it,” he said. “It’s really funny. I love the fans here and you really get to hear their passion for it and what they really think of it, rather than, ‘Oh, you’re on the football team. Let me tell you this and this.’”
That incognito role of not always being recognized by fans? It’s all just part of being a specialist.
By LARRY VAUGHT
University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops certainly backs the NCAA’s new rule allowing colleges to provide unlimited meals and snacks for athletes as something that is long overdue. It’s the same stance Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari has had.
“We demand an awful lot from these guys. These guys work extremely hard. You know, we work them out in the morning, they got practices, study halls,” said Stoops after Wednesday’s practice. “So they’re quite busy and work their tails off for us. And they do need the nutrition and they need the meals. You guys have heard me say that before. I’m all for whatever we can give to these players. I don’t have all the answers, but I support whatever we can do to make their lives a little bit more comfortable.”
While the rule, which still faces one more vote to become official, won’t have a dramatic impact on every Division I athlete, Stoops said there are many who struggle financially even on scholarship and are pulled various ways to use what money they have.
“I definitely think there’s times when those guys struggle. There’s individual cases. That’s what makes it very difficult for coaches,” Stoops said. “I mean, we’re all human and want the best for these kids. And there are definitely some times when kids go through some tough situations.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize, for all the time we’ve been in this, you can see players that feel such an obligation to send their money home. So their little baby brother or sister or mother isn’t starving, too. There’s lots of situations that make it very tough for these kids. It needs to be handled individually. We can’t just lump them all together.”
That’s why Stoops was so pleased to see the NCAA council making this move to help athletes.
“It definitely has a drastic effect. We’re working through that. I believe there’s got to be one more vote to clear. So we’ll work through that with Mitch (Barnhart) and our administration. But it should definitely benefit these players. I think all the details still need to be worked out.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Jalen Whitlow made the best decision for himself to transfer to another school so he could continue to play quarterback, but he probably also did Kentucky a favor with his choice after being asked to move to receiver.
Whether it was his fault or not — and former coach Joker Phillips and current coach Mark Stoops have said repeatedly that it was not — Kentucky was just not very good offensively when Whitlow played. The Cats were a combined 4-20 the last two seasons and while many noted how well Whitlow could throw and run in practice, he normally had trouble completing passes in games.
In Neal Brown’s offense, efficiency is the key word. Fans want big plays; Brown wants first downs and accurate throws.
Whitlow was not even a full-time quarterback in high school, but from the day he got to UK he was determined that he would play quarterback, and only quarterback. I still remember at the 2012 media day if he could envision himself being the next Randall Cobb, a high school quarterback who made the move to receiver at UK and is now in the NFL, and he quickly and politely told me he was a quarterback.
But he was not the quarterback to run Brown’s offense — and UK fans were never going to buy into him leading an “Air Raid” offense when in-state favorites Drew Barker and Patrick Towles, both prolific high school passers, and redshirt freshman Reese Phiillips, a much more accurate passer, were potential starting quarterbacks.
“We’re narrowing it down. So we’re making progress. We like where we’re at. We’re improving. We’re getting it narrowed down. It’s just like Jalen, last night, we made that decision with Jalen. I talked to him yesterday. He made that decision last night. I told you today. The other guys, we’re working our way through it. It’s not a big secret, we’re just working through it,” coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday when asked if Whitlow’s transfer meant Brown had picked a starter.
Stoops said it best when he noted that both he and Brown felt “Jalen’s best skill set” for Kentucky was at receiver. That obviously means the two coaches have seen enough of Barker, a true freshmen, along with Phillips and Towles to believe at least one, if not more, would be ahead of Whitlow at quarterback when the season starts.
“As far as the other three quarterbacks that are competing right now, we’re working through that situation. It’s fluid,” Brown said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve told you, and it’s going to be the same stance. You all can ask questions about it, but basically is we’re working through it. We want to make a quicker decision than we did last year, but all three guys, we’re mixing up the reps. They’re doing some good things, they’re doing some things that aren’t so good. As soon as we make a decision, just like today, you all will get notified.”
Brown admitted Saturday’s scrimmage, which was not open to the public, played a role in the decision to ask Whitlow, a versatile athlete, to switch positions.
“There’s more weight that goes into the scrimmages, but this decision wasn’t based just on Saturday. It was a year’s worth of work and I think Saturday was eight practices (into spring ball). So Saturday, the other guys probably did some better things, but it wasn’t just based off one afternoon,” Brown said.
Remember, Brown and Stoops had last spring and all last season to watch Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, who is out this spring rehabbing from shoulder surgery, to play quarterback. Most Kentucky fans were convinced neither could be a winning SEC quarterback. That’s why going into spring drills that Barker, Towles or Phillips figured to have a terrific chance to become the starter — and now one will be.
“You have a past performance. And I will say this as well: Jalen made strides. He was better this spring than he was in the fall, but the other three guys who are competing are better, too. And maybe they made bigger strides, OK? But this wasn’t premeditated, this was something as we went through the nine practices, we made a decision on, it was clear,” Brown said.
What about Whitlow being the most mobile?
You always try to tailor your offense and your plays to the skill set of your players. With him (Whitlow) in there, obviously there’s a few more options. But ultimately we want to throw the football,” Stoops said
Throw the football? That’s not Whitlow’s strength and that’s why he was not the right for UK or Brown.
“We’re always going to fit around our personnel. I don’t think the offense that we ran last year is ideally what we want to do, but I thought it gave us the best chance to win,” Brown said. “We can fit around his skill set. It came down to consistently making throws. That’s what it came down to. He made really good throws, but not on a consistent as a basis as he needed to.
“This is not a negative on Jalen, OK? The other three guys are performing well. I feel good about where we’re at the quarterback position, now we’ve got to go do it with the lights on, but Saturday in the scrimmage or game atmosphere, that was the best that any quarterbacks have looked since I’ve been here for a calendar year.”
Which is why Whitlow is now headed for another school and UK is guaranteed to have a new starting quarterback next season.
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Rather than move to wide receiver as he was asked to do by coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown, quarterback Jalen Whitlow has decided to transfer.
He started seven games as a true freshman n 2012 and started eight games last year in Stoops’ first season when UK went 2-10, the same record in had in 2012. He rushed for 663 yards and nine scores in two seasons and threw for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’m never surprised. I know Jalen was disappointed. I was hopeful that he would give it a try, but I understand where he’s coming from,” said Brown after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s played quarterback most of his life. He feels like he is (one), so I understand and I’ll support him.”
Whitlow will finish the semester before transferring and having two years of eligibility remaining. Stoops said it would be between him and Whitlow what transfer restrictions, if any, are placed on the player.
“I appreciate the University of Kentucky and what the coaching staff and administration have done for me,” Whitlow said in a statement released by UK since he was not available to the media. “I also thank the community and the fan support I have received here. I wish the coaches and my teammates the best of luck.”
Stoops talked to Whitlow twice Tuesday about where UK was with the quarterback battle that includes sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker.
“He’s worked very hard for a long time, through high school and through college here, to help this university and be the best quarterback he can be. So I wish him the best of luck,” Stoops said. “We were in a situation where, once we told him where we’re working it out with quarterback, and asked him to play another position (and) if he’d be open to that, he decided that it’d be in his best interest to go somewhere else and play QB. That’s where his heart is. That’s what he wants to do. I understand that.”
Stoops said he had not asked Whitlow to change positions before discussing a possible move to receiver with him Tuesday.
“We’ve given him every opportunity to win the starting job. He deserved that right. He was in there. As you know, he played some good football for us at times last year,” Stoops said. “I’ve said this over and over again, it’s not all about the quarterback position. We needed to get better across the board. If Jalen was coming back here next year and being the quarterback and playing for us, we’d be a whole lot better than we were last year, just because the whole team should look better. It’s not just on him.”
Brown said he was “disappointed” Whitlow was leaving and called him a “great kid” on the team.
“Love the kid, appreciate everything he’s done for the program. I want to make sure that we understand that our lack of success last year, he only played a minor role in that,” Brown said. “We didn’t do enough as coaches and at other positions groups — I want to put that out there too, I want to make sure we’re clear on that.
“Respect his decision, understand, but again, disappointed. We had a couple different conversations yesterday. We made the suggestion about moving positions, and he wants to be a quarterback, which we definitely understand.”
Stoops said he knew moving to receiver would be a hard change for Whitlow.
“When you’re bundled up at the quarterback position, it’s a different position. Again, I don’t look at it like he’s throwing in the towel on us. I wish he was here,” Stoops said. “I wanted him to stay here and play for Kentucky in some position. But he wants to play quarterback, so we understand that.
“It’s hard, as you know. It’s hard to get four and five guys reps. Listen: I want to move on. I want there to be a clear-cut winner or a starter, or at least one and two, so we can start narrowing down reps. But one thing that I can be sure (of) is that I feel very fair that I gave Jalen a great shot to win that job.”
Both Stoops and Brown said the talk with Whitlow was not easy on anyone.
“It was tough. I have a lot of respect for Jalen. He’s a good kid. Worked extremely hard. He’s talented, and he does have the skill set to run the football, and throw it at times,” Stoops said. “He’s maybe not as consistent as we’d like to be in the pass game. But he’s a very good quarterback, and it is tough to have that conversation. I appreciate the work that he did.”
Brown said coaches know they have to make hard decisions as part of their job, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“It’s never fun. It’s not something I enjoy. It’s really one of the worst aspects. What I try to do … and what I did with Jalen … I told him I care about him, which I do. I want him to do what he thinks is best for him in regard to our team. But I also wanted to be up front and honest with him and I knew there would be a decision he had to make,” Brown said.
“I was hoping he’d make the decision to stay, but I do understand. And I appreciate his contributions. I really do. Last year was a tough year. It wouldn’t have mattered who played quarterback; it was going to be a difficult, difficult season. He weathered some things, some adversity, so I’m proud of him for that. But it is: it’s a difficult thing, for sure.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
The first day of spring practice, Kentucky’s offensive and defensive linemen had a few skirmishes. While head coach Mark Stoops can’t condone that, he would like to see more spunk in the line play for UK to have a chance to make a move in the SEC.
“We can’t have it interfering with practice all the time and getting very sloppy. I think they were proud of the work that they’ve done in the offseason. They feel like they’ve got some muscles on them now, so they want to throw it around a little bit, so we’ll get it cleaned up,” Stoops said.
So will the offensive line be more physical this year?
“I certainly hope so. We work that way and guys are bigger and stronger. Again, we’re a work in progress there. It’s not like overnight we can just go out there and manhandle people in the SEC. There’s a lot of teams that are big and strong. But I anticipate us being better, yes,” Stoops said.