LEXINGTON, Ky. — Monday marked the beginning of spring practice for Kentucky football, and we learned quite a bit from Mark Stoops’ opening press conference.
Here are 10 quick hits on the most interesting information:
As spring practice begins, it’s important to know which players are actually participating. Kentucky is currently without three key seniors: tight end C.J. Conrad, wide receiver Dorian Baker and cornerback Derrick Baity.
Full updates on those injuries, plus another involving Justin Rigg on Monday morning, can be found here.
The injury to keep an eye on is Baker’s. The fracture-dislocation in his left ankle that he suffered last fall camp kept him out all of last season, and it’s still not fully healed. Stoops said the coaches are taking it slow with him, which makes sense. The Cats need him healthy. Baker, along with Tavin Richardson, has to lead an inexperienced receivers group.
Was Stoops surprised at Eli Brown’s decision to transfer?
“Yes and no,” he said.
We wrote a full story about Stoops’ comments on Brown’s decision, but there was clearly a disconnect between Brown and the staff about putting weight on and getting in proper shape to be an inside linebacker in the SEC.
Backup inside linebackers
More interesting than Stoops’ indirect thoughts on Brown were his plans for replacing him. Inside linebacker was already a thin position for Kentucky. Senior Jordan Jones will start at the weakside spot, but that’s about all we knew — until Monday.
The competition to replace Courtney Love as the starting middle linebacker will be between junior Kash Daniel and redshirt freshman Alex King, who was listed as an outside linebacker last season.
Redshirt freshman Jamin Davis, not King, was who we projected to compete with Daniel at middle linebacker. Instead, Davis will now be the first option to replace Brown as the second-team weakside backer behind Jones.
Lots of moving parts in the linebackers room. Not a lot of experience.
Speaking of moving parts, sophomore Josh Paschal has moved from outside linebacker to defensive end. This move makes a lot of sense. Paschal was stuck behind Josh Allen on the depth chart last season and now they can be on the field together.
Also, Paschal put on weight this offseason. After a “couple biscuits” as Stoops said, Paschal is up to 278 pounds — big enough to play on the line.
“He needs to be on the field playing for us,” Stoops said. “He’s definitely one of our best 11. Just because we have some depth at outside backer, you don’t want him sitting there on the sidelines next to me.”
Paschal could take over the starting defensive end spot ahead of T.J. Carter.
The hiring of Brad White as Kentucky’s 10th assistant and new outside linebackers coach pushed special teams coordinator Dean Hood back to the secondary with defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale.
Hood, who also works as Kentucky’s special teams coordinator, is the “assistant secondary coach” for now.
“I don’t want to put that label on it right now, like he definitely has the safeties or he has the nickels or just corners,” Stoops said. “They are going to work together with that, but he does have great experience.”
For now, Stoops wants all the defensive backs in the same room.
Time to step up
There are significant weight changes on the roster, and in answering a question about the team getting bigger and stronger this offseason, Stoops mentioned two defensive linemen that need to step up: defensive end T.J. Carter and defensive tackle Kordell Looney.
“T.J. Carter also needs to have a big year,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that he has to take the offseason serious. Again, we pounded it for the seven weeks. I really wanted to work those guys.”
Carter, now a junior, was Kentucky’s full-time starter at defensive end last year. He had 18 tackles, three tackles for a loss and three sacks.
Looney had 10 tackles in 11 games as a redshirt freshman.
“We’re going to put tons of pressure on him,” Stoops said of Looney. “He’s either going to be accountable, do the things that he’s supposed to do to become the player I think he can be, or he’ll get caught in the wash. But he needs to take a step.”
Don’t expect anything juicy here. We’re not going to know anything about the battle between Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak after one spring practice.
“That’s going to take some time,” Stoops said. “I tell you, I’m very impressed with the way they are throwing the football. You just look at the talent and you look at the way they are spinning the ball, and you know, it does jump out at you at times and I think all of us would agree for us to take it to the next level, we need to be more efficient at throwing the football.”
The former 4-star prospect from Lawrenceville, Ga., who transferred from USC to Kentucky seems like a good bet to play this season, but Stoops pumped the brakes just a bit.
“We will see,” Stoops said. “He definitely has some real talent. He’s been consistent, you know, for a couple weeks here, for maybe a month or so. There’s been some inconsistencies with him that he needs to iron out that we’re working with him.”
Lynn Bowden was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team by the coaches last season, and the Youngstown, Ohio, product could be in line for a breakout 2018 season.
Kentucky needs production from its slot receivers with Garrett Johnson and Charles Walker no longer around. Bowden had 17 catches for 210 yards but he couldn’t find the end zone as a freshman.
He was a late arrival last offseason and could make a big jump this spring.
“I like the way he worked this winter,” Stoops said. “You could see he’s stronger. If you get stronger, I think it’s only going to help his explosiveness, his top-end speed when he goes and plays a game, along with spring practice and just continuing to grow because you’re talking about a guy who hasn’t played wide receiver. So just learning the nuances of that position is only going to help him. He needs as many reps as he can get.”
In search of a leader
Captains Stephen Johnson and Courtney Love are gone, and now Kentucky needs new leaders. Finding a couple players to fill those roles might take awhile.
“It’s going to be hard,” Stoops said. “That we will see. You don’t just hand those things over. Those guys earned the respect from their teammates from their play and from consistency and the way they go about doing things on and off the field and we’ll see who emerges in that role.”