Kentucky football's spring game offers hope for a more explosive offense – Courier Journal


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Mark Stoops’ post-scrimmage news conference following the 2019 Kentucky football spring game.
Jon Hale, Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – If the Kentucky football offense is able to line up against its own second-team defense this fall, watch out.

Otherwise, UK players and coaches know they still have work to do to prove a more explosive passing game will be able to make up for the production lost with Benny Snell, the program’s all-time leading rusher, leaving for the NFL draft.

“We’ve been working hard all offseason at trying to improve and converting opportunities and shot plays,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after watching his starters (the Blue team) roll to a 64-10 win over his backups (the White team) in the annual spring game. “You saw us convert some of those today. That’s good to see no matter who is out there and what you’re playing against.”

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It is difficult to argue with the results of Kentucky’s offense last season, which was good enough to help the team to just the third 10-win season in program history, the first win over Florida in 31 years, a rout of arch rival Louisville and a Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State, but the success was built largely on the back of Snell, who ranked second in the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards (1,449) and rushing touchdowns (16).

Kentucky ranked 117th in the country in passing yards per game (161.5), and quarterback Terry Wilson particularly struggled to connect with an inconsistent group of outside wide receivers on deep balls down the field.

“Coach (Eddie) Gran has been challenging us, Coach Stoops has been challenging us to move the ball down the field and just make some deep throws,” Wilson said. “We’ve been doing that the whole spring. It’s good to see we can do that. We’ll be doing a lot of that this season too.”

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In 2018, Kentucky ranked 106th of 130 FBS teams in passing plays longer than 20 yards (31) and 114th in passing plays of at least 30 yards (11).

In Friday’s scrimmage, Wilson completed 10 of 12 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Of his 10 completions, four went for at least 20 yards, including a 42-yard pass to Lynn Bowden and a 60-yard pass to Isaiah Epps.

“Man, it’s been a long time coming,” said Epps, one of the primary culprits in the missed downfield throws last fall. “Really just a lot of practice and repetition being able to get those deep balls completed.”

When backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak took his turn with the first-team offense, he found equal success, completing 14 of 15 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns with three completions between 21 and 27 yards.

Still waiting for the majority of the 2019 signing class to arrive this summer, Kentucky’s spring depth issues were exposed with a mostly forgettable performance from the second-team offense and defense, but redshirt freshman wide receiver Bryce Oliver provided some additional hope for new playmakers on the edge with eight total catches for 105 yards and one touchdown, including five catches for 63 yards against the first-team defense.

He made two of the most impressive catches of the night – a leaping grab for 28 yards and a catch through contact down the sideline for 23 yards – while playing against Kentucky’s best cornerbacks.

“I’m excited about him,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “I thought he made a jump. He’s going to push those guys. I think he’s a guy that can play for us, there’s no doubt. For him to do it like that against the first-team defense, you even get more excited.”

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Wilson called the Blue-White scrimmage the best performance of the spring for the Kentucky offense, but perhaps more telling was his inability to come up with a single difficult throw on the night when asked which defensive backs on the White team were most challenging to face.

Kentucky is still searching for viable starting cornerbacks, so judging its offense against the backups at that position is probably a fool’s errand. But with Snell gone and Wilson entering his second year in the offense, the passing game has to improve.

While the opponents will be much more difficult in the fall, spring games are about hope, and the Kentucky offense offered plenty Friday.

“It’s been inconsistent (this spring),” Gran said. “That was good to see. It was good to see (Epps) finish that long ball. He had a chance to do it on Tuesday and he didn’t do it. He did it today, and that was good. Bryce came up with some big catches. If we evolve out there we’ll be a better football team.”

Jon Hale: jahale@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/jonh.


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