Spring Game Blues (and Whites)

Many consider Springtime in the Commonwealth to be a season of renewal and growth. It’s usually the time for all long-suffering UK football fans to bury the haunting memories of last year and welcome in the new season with the customary excited anticipation of the Big Blue fanbase. For what seems like an eternity, the Kentucky Football program has been mired in futility. But hope springs eternal in the hearts of BBN, and that’s why the annual Blue-White scrimmage is still such a big deal to all who are loyal followers.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m just a wide-eyed fan at heart–not a football expert. There are plenty of other reliable sources you can go to read about statistics and strategies. There won’t be many recruiting scoops or depth chart analyses coming from me. My goal is to take you through the season on the roller coaster of emotions of a hard-core fan. Exhilaration and heartache going hand-in-hand as is sure to be the case with our beloved Cats.

My first memories of UK football involved making the frightening climb up the end zone bleachers at Stoll Field. Thankful that I didn’t plummet through the cracks to the ground below, I spent most of those seasons watching Bernie Scruggs scramble for his life. Oh sure, there were the occasional fleeting highlights such as the Wildcat’s upset of Archie Manning’s Ole Miss team back in 1969, but most of the games followed the familiar script of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Somehow, the Cats always found a creative way to lose.

The move to Commonwealth Stadium did not bode much better. The parade of coaches, from Curci to Claiborne to Curry to Mumme to Morris to Brooks and to Joker could really never sustain anything above mediocrity. We were momentarily tantalized with breakout bowl years (’76 Peach, ’83 and ’84 Hall of Fame, ’98 Outback), 5 consecutive bowl appearances (’06-’10) during the Rich Brooks era, and a trickling parade of All-American players (Warren Bryant, Art Still, Tim Couch, Randall Cobb), but Kentucky Football simply couldn’t seem to ever make it over the hump.

For some strange reason, though, I’m pumped up for this year’s version of the Wildcats, especially after watching the Blue team defeat the White team 31-20 in the annual Blue-White scrimmage this past Saturday. Maybe because it’s the fourth straight year of a stellar recruiting class, or because of the hiring of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, or simply because we missed the Spring game last year due to stadium renovations, or maybe that’s just how delusional we are every April, but this year’s game brought forth many insights and observations leading to additional hopes and expectations for this year’s Stoop’s Troops. Perhaps the chance to be on the field, interviewing the players, eating free hot dogs, or eavesdropping on the cynical comments of media colleagues from my panoramic birds-eye view on press row just added to my euphoria of viewing everything through blue-colored glasses.

Following are the top five questions I was hoping to answer by watching this year’s organized scrimmage. Whether from the  heart of an ebullient-wannabe-reporter or the discerning eye of a seasoned football scribe, these are the things that curious UK football minds want to know.  1) What is the quarterback situation looking like? 2) Can our offense develop an identity? 3) Can our receivers catch the ball this year? 4) Will we be able to fill the void at linebacker?  5) What’s up with special teams? I left the game with a better idea about the answers to most but not all of these queries.

Drew Barker has definitely established himself as not only the number one QB on the depth chart, but also as the leader of this team. With his off-the-field indiscretions a thing of the past (hopefully), he looked confident, throwing the ball down the field with accuracy and authority. The coaches claim that he has improved in leaps and bounds in every aspect of his game, and it showed. He finished the afternoon 12-18 with 2 TDs and 1 interception. If Barker ever falters, Stephen Johnson’s athleticism looked to make him  a very capable back-up. The JC transfer was impressive, often easily evading defenders, racking up 69 rushing yards with his nifty fakes and nimble moves.

Last season, our offense frequently looked dyslexic. We ran the ball when we should have passed and passed when we should have run. We threw the ball down the field on some very questionable situations. The “air-raid” proved to be false advertising and we all should have demanded our money back as Shannon Dawson banked his buy-out on the way out of Dodge. This year, it appears the offense has a definite purpose. “Gran”ted, in these intra-squad scrimmages, it’s often hard to tell whether good offense is really due to bad defense, but on Saturday, it sure looked like both the first and second team offenses were clicking. They were on the ball quickly and executed with a purpose not seen since the Deuce was loose. Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw are reputed to both be very disciplined coaches. This team needs that regimen and the pro-style offense certainly reflected their demeanor.

New receivers coach Lamar Thomas had a stellar playing career himself before winding up in the coaching fraternity. His on-the-field accomplishments should bring instant credibility in the eyes of the entire “diva-like” UK receiving corps. Hopefully his enthusiasm and swagger will trigger a focus resulting in fewer outright dropped passes. After all, you can’t “out-diva a diva”! Hopefully the Barker-to-Ryan Timmons and Johnson-to-Jeff Badet TD bombs we witnessed will become regular staples on official game days throughout the season. Tight end CJ Conrad also made his presence felt with a “Gronk-like” 19-yard TD catch in traffic.

On the defensive side of the ball, Coach Stoops has thus far expressed confidence in the defensive line up front. Denzil Ware was all over the field recording a team-leading 15 tackles and 4 sacks. Matt Elam supposedly has rededicated himself to being the elite player we all expected. Chris Westry and Derrick Baity lead a talented group of returning defensive backs. It’s the linebacker corps in the middle that poses the most uncertainty. Sophomore Josh Allen and transfer Courtney Love showed occasional glimpses of being able to fill in for last year’s heavy graduation losses at the position. However, you can’t fake leadership or experience and it looks likes this area may still be a work in progress. We need this group to step up quickly.

Two years ago, special teams coach Craig Naivar caught a lot of flak for the team’s poor showing. Last year’s special teams-by-committee fared even worse. The untimely departure this year of Andy Buh to Maryland only heightened the angst of all those obsessed with kick-off returns and punt coverages. It’s hard to glean anything from a sixty-minute glorified scrimmage with no active kick returns and a running second half clock. Let’s hope it’s not too late when we finally find out how good or bad we really are in this crucial, but often neglected, phase of the game.

So what are my thoughts on this year’s team based on this momentary glimpse? We look bigger, and faster, and better. Coach Stoops appeared pleased with the team’s performance during his post-game remarks. But we’re all tired of hearing that “better doesn’t necessarily translate into more wins on the field, as the schedule this year is undoubtedly more difficult–blah, blah, blah”. The truth is that this is the greatest accumulation of UK football talent I’ve seen in my lifetime. Stoop’s performance needs to be evaluated primarily by his team’s production on the field on Saturdays. To me that means more wins, and I’m saying he’ll get them. I’m predicting a 6-6 record, maybe 7-5 with a few less dropped passes and just a fortunate bounce here or there. Hope springs eternal. I can’t wait until Fall.

If you enjoy my writing, please continue to visit me at http://www.huangswhinings.com and follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs

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