LEXINGTON, Ky. — The final score doesn’t matter and it’s hard to know what to make of Kentucky football’s spring game Friday night under the lights at Commonwealth Stadium.
The rosters were mixed and matched and some players even switched sides halfway through the scrimmage. We don’t even know actual attendance, only that there were 37,172 tickets distributed and nowhere near that many actually showed up.
Here is what do know from Friday’s action: the offense has plenty of playmakers, the defense still has significant questions to answer and the kicking game needs work.
No, there is not a quarterback controversy at Kentucky, but QB coach Darin Hinshaw said earlier this spring that the Wildcats can win in the SEC with backup Gunnar Hoak, and nothing happened Friday to disprove him. Hoak, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, looked sharp leading the second-team offense against the first-team defense in the first half, completing 12 of 18 passes for 92 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. He switched teams in the second half and completed 4 of 6 passes for 82 yards, leading two more touchdown drives and capping the second with a TD run.
The starting job still very much belongs to Stephen Johnson, who led Kentucky to seven wins and a bowl game last season, but the senior QB wasn’t quite as sharp in the spring game: 8 of 18 for 106 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. He did have one deep completion wiped out by a touch sack (quarterbacks could not be tackled Friday) and just missed on another long heave.
Star sophomore running back Benny Snell showed that he still has it in limited action: 6 touches, 42 yards and a rumbling touchdown run. The backup backs also impressed: redshirt freshman A.J. Rose broke a 27-yard run against the first-team defense on his first carry in front of Kentucky fans but later took a vicious hit and did not return. Junior Sihiem King was a spring game star for the second straight year: 19 carries, 107 yards, 2 TD. Now the question is whether he’ll actually get some playing time this fall.
The play of the night from the receiving corps was a leaping, twisting, toe-tapping touchdown by 6-foot-6, 225-pound Kayaune Ross (on a nice fade pass from Hoak) — the kind of play UK expected when it added the JUCO transfer last fall. Ross missed most of last season with an injury but could be a big red-zone weapon for the Wildcats in 2017.
There was bad news for the defense even before the scrimmage started: star linebacker Jordan Jones missed a meeting Friday morning and was not allowed to participate in the Blue-White game. That’s not a great sign from a guy the Cats are counting on for some leadership.
Then the starting defense got carved up by the backup offense. That should be troublesome for new defensive coordinator Matt House and head coach Mark Stoops. On the bright side, three young linebackers shined. Early enrollee Jamin Davis led all players with 8 tackles, including an impressive tackle for loss on a shovel pass to Snell. Redshirt freshman Jamar “Boogie” Watson was all over the place: 3 tackles, a sack and a pass breakup, while sophomore Kash Daniel added 5 tackles of his own.
The future looks bright for a position group that needed an influx of talent, but there remain some big questions about the defense as a whole.
Special teams: D-
Kentucky is going to need Matthew Panton, an Australian punter who is transferring from Columbia University, to be the real deal. Because Grant McKinniss is just not getting the job done. He ranked 97th nationally in yards per punt last season and showed no improvement Friday night. Facing no pressure — the opposing team could not rush him — McKinnis averaged just 36.7 yards on seven punts in the spring game. Kicker Austin MacGinnis also missed a 43-yard field goal wide right. There were no kickoff or punt returns allowed Friday.
It was ugly and disjointed at times, and more of the backups stood out than starters. But perhaps that speaks to Kentucky’s improving depth.