Gridiron Hopes, Dreams and Fears

UK coach Mark Stoops works with the defense during the open practice. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

UK coach Mark Stoops works with the defense during the open practice. Photo by VICTORIA GRAFF

Another spring, and more raptures of confidence flowed from UK’s football practice facility.

Mark Stoops put his best grin forward as he approaches his third this-is-it season. Returning players vowed not to let another season slip away. Freshmen enthused about how much they were learning from the veterans and the coaches.

Another quarterback proclaimed that “it’s all on my shoulders now,” but “I feel great. I’m ready for the challenge.”

So to paraphrase a refrain from the recently completed Passover celebration, “Why is this spring different from all other springs?”

We know there are some monster new offensive linemen available finally to open running lanes and give the QB time to pass. But weren’t we hearing similar things a year ago about George Asafo-Adjei?

The linebackers were getting a passive “better” from the coaches, which sounded more like hope than expectation.

The big talented receivers were being called “outstanding potential, if they can hang onto the ball,” which seemed a little too obvious when you’re talking about receivers.

The highly talented tight end corp was being promised a much bigger role in the offense, which is what we heard last year, before C.J. Conrad caught all of 15 passes.

Some of these huge new offensive linemen were exposed for faulty mechanics. It’s probably not fair to expect freshmen to come in performing at upperclassman levels, but it sounded suspiciously like another season of the UK QB running for his life. Only the quarterback’s name will be different.

Worse, some of them are having to learn new positions: guards becoming tackles, tackles becoming guards. On-the-job training? In the SEC?

Speaking of on-the-job SEC training, coaches have come and gone, some seeming to check out in the middle of the night. At times, it felt like Dorothy’s first impression of Oz: “My, people come and go so quickly here!” Which means quarterbacks, offensive tackles, wide receivers and special teamers are all having to get used to another coach’s philosophy and personality.

And maybe the worst part of it all is that – even if Drew Barker, Chris Westry, an improved Dorian Baker, a re-emphasized C.J. Conrad, a re-jiggered offensive line, a healthy Boom Williams, a recovered Austin MacGinnis and Sihiem King are ready to break out – even if they all come together, many feel Kentucky missed its golden opportunity a year ago, when its favorable 2015 schedule portended a better chance for going bowling. The Cats played eight home games, and nowhere on the schedule did Alabama appear. (Nor did LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M or Arkansas.)

This year, not so lucky. This year, national champion Alabama shows up on the schedule, along with a repeat appearance by Mississippi State. (All the Eastern Division opponents – from Florida and Georgia to Tennessee and Vanderbilt – are back, of course.) And only seven home games, meaning Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville on the road.

So what, besides confident whistling past the graveyard, should give Cats fans hope?

Though I was dubious at the time the announcements were made, I’ll admit to being very impressed with the two University of Cincinnati imports, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. In their public pronouncements, they’ve been direct, tough, demanding and realistic. Shannon Dawson, despite his appealing dimples and Southern drawl, was all over the place in his interviews, which meant that either he was being cagey and close to the vest about his plans or he was completely indecisive. Sadly, we learned which was the case.

Lamar Thomas, the new wide receiver coach, talks a lot about his favorite subject: Lamar Thomas, the new wide receivers coach. But he has some solid credentials: two national championship rings from Miami (1989 and ’91) and mentoring DeVante Parker (who didn’t drop many balls) at UofL. Call it “wide receiver swagger.” UK could use more of that.

Overall, there seems to be a plan in Lexington these days. Gran, Hinshaw and Thomas don’t seem like the types to let 5-1 and 4-1 starts go down the drain. They don’t seem like the types to let their players blow a 24-7 halftime lead. Or to lose to Vanderbilt.

On the other hand, if this season is more like the last three, there could be bigger changes than which home uniform to wear or a few new assistants. Mark Stoops has impressed everyone with his patient demeanor, aggressive recruiting and commanding presence. This is the year to turn all that into a bowl trip to somewhere.

Which is what we said last spring. VT