University of Kentucky football offensive coordinator Neal Brown said after team’s third spring practice Wednesday that the No. 1 focus this offseason at every offensive position was “fundamental improvement.” After lacing on the shoulder pads for the first time this spring Wednesday morning for a two-hour practice at the Nutter Training Center, Brown and head coach Mark Stoops both said they saw the improvement they were looking for.
“Good workout today,” Stoops said. “I thought it was good to get out there the first day with pads on … Overall, pretty good day. I think we are making some strides in certain areas and obviously we are a work in progress in others.”
The main topic of conversation Wednesday was the quarterback position. The position is loaded with both returners and newcomers in juniors Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and early enrollee Drew Barker. All five are on the field, although Smith is not throwing this spring while recovering from offseason surgery.
Stoops said the improvement in the quarterbacks this spring is that they did what they were supposed to do in the offseason and now have to show consistent improvements on the field.
“We have improved (at quarterback), that is the good news,” Stoops said. “Starting with Jalen (Whitlow), obviously Max (Smith) is not out there (due to injury). I think Jalen has improved and I am encouraged with Patrick, Reese and Drew. They are doing some good things.”
Brown said it’s obvious early in the camp that all four that are practicing this spring have improved fundamentally. The offensive coordinator said not only have the returning players improved, but the Phillips and Barker, who are splitting reps with Whitlow and Towles, have added some “juice.”
“All four of them going through spring practice have improved fundamentally,” Brown said. “Jalen has missed a little time with a tight hamstring. Towles is really improved fundamentally, which gives him a chance. He has gotten a lot better. The ball is getting out on time, his feet are putting him in a position to throw the ball, which is a big improvement and I am excited about that. Reese and Drew, both getting good reps. Obviously, Drew is just getting here, but Reese getting reps with the first group for the first time, really. Both of those guys have added something. They have added a little juice and I’m excited about the progress both of those guys are making. We have thrown a lot at them. We have had three days of heavy install and all three days we have looked as good in the three days as we have any point last year. We are better. I don’t think we have arrived, but we are definitely better.”
Stoops said the coaching staff does not want to go through spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp before finding a “clear-cut starter or at least having narrowed it down.”
The head coach said when one of the quarterbacks jumps up grabs the job, then he will start getting most the first-team reps.
“Just in full command of that offense and can execute that offense and can make the throws when they want to and not be careless with the football,” Stoops said when asked what it would look like when someone has grabbed the job. “All of them do good things at times. We just need somebody to do something right all the time.
“That is why you practice. You see who comes to play and who has done the work in the offseason and who has improved. It is interesting again. We have some guys that we need to work through and see who the leader is. I don’t have an answer for you right now, I wish I did, but I don’t.”
One thing Stoops and Brown mentioned multiple times after practice was the quarterbacks’ improvements are partly due to the improved personnel around them. On top of the wide receiver corps improving, the addition of Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard and a healthy Josh Clemons has helped as well. Stoops said Wednesday that Clemons looks more comfortable now than he did before his injury last season.
“He really looks good, he does,” Stoops said about Clemons. “He almost looks more comfortable right now before his last injury. It is good to see him out there and we are trying to be very smart with him and get him through this spring. We have good backs so we are rotating all those guys and just trying to be smart with him as far as reps are concerned.”
With Wednesday being the first practice in pads – UK wore shorts with shoulder pads and helmets – Stoops said there was some added fire and excitement at practice. The coach also said a positive he and the coaching staff can see is an increased physicality up front, especially offensively.
“We have worked that way and guys are bigger and stronger,” Stoops said about the physicality of his offensive line. “Again, we are a work in progress there. It is not like overnight we can go out there and manhandle people in the SEC. There are a lot of teams that are very big and very strong. But I anticipate us being better, yes.”
UK will have its first back-to-back practice days this weekend, working out Friday and Saturday before a day off on Sunday.
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