LEXINGTON, Ky. — Friday, Day 6 of preseason camp, marked the Kentucky football team’s first practice in full pads, and so began the separation of players who look like players and those who are players. Reporters were not allowed to watch but did ask some of the Wildcats’ veterans who stood out.
“The receivers, Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali, both look amazing for two true freshmen,” senior linebacker Courtney Love said. He joined the early chorus of praise for Epps, a 6-3, 185-pound wideout from Oklahoma, and Ali, a 6-foot, 180-pound speedster from Florida.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran first mentioned that pair emerging after Tuesday’s practice — just their third in college. Starting cornerback Chris Westry piled onto the praise Friday.
“Them guys got some burners, man,” Westry said. “And that’s real good for us, for some guys to be able to come in Year 1 and make a difference.”
Kentucky is loaded with tall, powerful receivers built to win jump balls and break tackles, but if Epps and Ali can be home-run threats, that could ease the sting of losing Jeff Badet, who transferred to Oklahoma after ranking second in the SEC last season with 7 catches of 40-plus yards.
OTHER WEEK 1 CAMP STANDOUTS
Star running back Benny Snell rattled off a list of players who’ve impressed him so far.
“Definitely on defense, [linebacker] Jordan Jones. He’s doing an amazing job pass rushing and especially on the blitz,” Snell said, adding that right guard Nick Haynes and center Bunchy Stallings “are doing a great job on the line, calling out the blitzes fast so I can recognize them, helping me and Stephen [Johnson] out. And Stephen’s doing a great job, too.”
Johnson, Kentucky’s starting quarterback who is trying to deny former starter Drew Barker’s bid to win back his job, had one clear objective after last season: protect the football. He ranked second nationally in both fumbles (10) and fumbles lost (6).
“He’s making a lot of smart decisions. When there’s rushes around him, he’s starting to tuck the ball a lot more,” Snell said. “We’re definitely going to reduce the fumbles, for sure. And he’s putting the ball on the money. I’m not a quarterback, but he’s great.”
On the other side of the ball, Love said the entire first-team defense “looks great,” as does one second-stringer: Jones’ backup at weakside linebacker, Eli Brown.
“Looks phenomenal,” Love said. “He’s coming downhill, just striking guys.”
Love also offered encouraging words for both the offensive and defensive lines. The O-line, widely considered one of the best in the SEC, is “as good as everybody says they are,” Love said, and the D-line — Kentucky’s biggest question mark — could get a boost from 6-foot-4, 320-pound freshman Quinton Bohanna. “Big Q, he looks really good. He looks great.”
DOUBTS FUELING THE WILDCATS
Kentucky returns 17 starters from a team that finished tied for second in the SEC East last season. In 2016, the Wildcats beat divisional opponents Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt before upsetting one of the ACC’s best teams, rival Louisville, and Heisman winner Lamar Jackson to end the regular season. But the Wildcats were picked by the media to finish fifth in the East in 2017?
“Watch us,” offensive tackle Kyle Meadows said. “Everybody’s expecting us just to fall, just to be terrible, they doubt us so bad. Go ahead. I agree with them. It’ll motivate us even more. You guys will see for yourself. Wait until the end of camp. No predictions — we’ll take it game by game — but people are going to be shocked.”
HAYNES COMPENSATES FOR WEIGHT LOSS
SEC Country’s Joe Mussatto reported Sunday that Haynes, a starting guard who drew preseason All-SEC consideration, is in a serious battle to keep his weight up while dealing with Type 1 diabetes. Then Haynes disclosed after practice Tuesday that he’s down to about 260 pounds — far from ideal for a player at his position in the mighty SEC — although he’s hopeful he will pack on some weight before the season.
In the meantime, how is Haynes handling the trenches at a significant disadvantage?
“He has a better football IQ, his technique is better, because of his small weight,” Meadows said. “If you have better technique, you can win any block. So if he wants to be out there, be out there; he can do it if he wants.”
Added Love, who faces Haynes every day: “It kind of hurts a little bit, but he’s such a player, he can play any position — he can play tight end, I think. And let him tell it, he could play linebacker with me. Nick’s really athletic, so I don’t think it’s going to really hurt him. He just needs to get a little bit of weight back and he’s going to be the same Nick Haynes that he was, if not better.”
BOWDEN IN THE BUILDING
Kentucky’s top recruit in the 2017 class, 4-star athlete Lynn Bowden — an electric playmaker who could take some direct snaps and line up in the slot for the Wildcats — was seen walking into the football training center during Friday’s practice. Good news?
Hopefully we’ll find out soon, as a UK spokesperson said there was no immediate update on his status. Coach Mark Stoops said Sunday that Bowden was still working his way through the NCAA Clearinghouse but was expected to join the team this week.