With Kentucky entering the home stretch of spring practice, Mark Stoops challenged his team.
The Wildcats would have four practices and Stoops knew they would need to have a good week to carry momentum into the summer.
“I felt like it was the most consistent week we’ve had in a while with all the things we’re doing,” Stoops said. “The practices, what we’re doing off the field, just with the accountability and dependability of our guys, whether it be academically and taking care of their business. I felt like we had a good week.”
The good week culminated with a scrimmage on Saturday open to the public. In front of a big crowd at the Tim Couch Practice Fields and with perfect weather, UK had a competitive session of a little more than 90 minutes.
“The scrimmage today, overall was pleased,” Stoops said. “Obviously it’s not always pretty. We’re a little watered down. I wish we could get it more at full strength at certain positions, but you still see the progress. I thought offensively they moved the ball some, and defensively came up with some stops and big plays at times.”
The big plays weren’t limited to the defensive side of the ball.
Whether Patrick Towles or Drew Barker was leading the offense, it was clear the vertical passing game is a priority under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Towles hit a pair of deep balls, one to Blake Bone for 47 yards another to Thaddeus Snodgrass for 50 yards.
“You gotta be able to throw the ball vertical,” Towles said. “You gotta be able to stretch them when they’re stacking the box in this league and there was times last year we just couldn’t do that. We either didn’t have the personnel or didn’t make a good throw, but that’s definitely an emphasis of Coach Dawson’s offense.”
Towles added a pair of touchdown passes — a 23-yarder to Cameron Fogle and a 15-yard strike to Rashad Cunningham — in demonstrating the kind of improvement Stoops is looking for out of his 2014 starter.
“It’s confidence-building for me to go out there and play like I did today,” Towles said. “I gotta be consistent with that.”
Barker, Towles’ competition for the starting job, is going through a similar process. The redshirt freshman made plenty of big plays of his own, most notably a 42-yard touchdown to Thaddeus Snodgrass on a play-action pass and a perfect throw over the middle to C.J. Conrad that Towles called the best of the day for either quarterback. That play covered 32 yards.
“One of us is going to go out there and play and other one’s going to root for that one,” Towles said. “So if it’s Drew, then I’m going to be his number one fan. If it’s me, I’m sure Drew would say the same thing. I love seeing him succeed and I love seeing him play well. It motivates me and increases my confidence.”
Conrad’s presence is helping the confidence of both quarterbacks. The tight end, who graduated high school early and enrolled in January, is adding a new dimension to the UK attack.
“You guys saw it today, have heard people talk about it this spring that he’s a guy that the sky’s the limit for him,” Stoops said. “He’s a great kid; he works extremely hard. He does everything right on the field, off the field and he’s a great student. He made some big plays today and he’s going to be a guy who plays an awful lot of snaps for us.”
UK was without a few more passing-game threats who figure to play plenty of snaps themselves. Wide receivers Ryan Timmons, Dorian Baker and Alex Montgomery sat out due to injury, but the offense continued to function.
“The guys that are in there are making a lot of plays and I’m fully confident with the guys we got that are playing right now,” Towles said. “It’s going to help them add some depth when those guys are coming.”
Along the offensive line, UK is at full strength. The group protected well and paved the way for dynamic running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, who got plenty of work with Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton sidelined due to illness and an ankle sprain, respectively.
“They’re more confident up there,” Towles said. “I’m more confident in them. (Center) Jon (Toth) is doing a phenomenal job of getting everything blocked up. Usually if there’s a sack out there it’s on us because we’re not getting rid of the ball or doing something. So they’re playing phenomenal. I cannot ask for anything from those guys and I look forward to them to continue to improve.”
UK’s defense had its moments as well, including a pair of interceptions by Josh Forrest. The athletic linebacker continues to excel in pass coverage — he had a pass breakup along with the two pickoffs — but Stoops is asking for him to develop against the run.
“We’re still not quite as deep as we need to be where you could go scrimmage so many times, but you do see some bad plays stick out in the run game when we go live,” Stoops said. “He had a few missed tackles in there. So that’s where he knows he needs to improve, but he has great range and he’s very good in space and can make some big plays in the pass game. We’ve just got to be more consistent. That’s a lot of guys.”
Consistency continues to be a buzzword with Stoops, but it doesn’t cloud the fact that he has an improving team in his third season in Lexington.
“I still like the direction where we’re headed,” Stoops said. “I like the balance of our offense. I felt like we’re getting better at throwing the ball down the field. We need to continue to get back at full strength at the receiver position. When that happens I think you’ll see us take another big step forward with what we’re doing.
“Again, just pleased. We have a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do, but this team is starting to grow a little bit.”