Air Raid offense highlights spring game

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The Mark Stoops era as head coach of the Kentucky football team witnessed perhaps its greatest highlight yet as 50,831 rejuvenated fans attended the 2013 Blue/White Spring Game at Commonwealth Stadium Saturday night.

Saturday night’s crowd, the largest to attend a spring game in program history, saw the Blue squad squeak out a one-point victory over the White team in the annual scrimmage, 24-23. It was Stoops first time out on the Commonwealth Stadium turf with his new team in front of the fans after 14 spring practices installing offensive and defensive schemes.

“Thought it was a great night for the program,” said Stoops. “Really appreciate the fan support, just an unbelievable atmosphere. I thought the players played hard. Made some mistakes, but overall, pretty clean game. So, very excited.”

The evening marked the height of the growing excitement around Kentucky football which was sparked with the hiring of Stoops on Nov. 27 last year. Since that moment, a fan base had its attention turned to a new-look, new-attitude program.

Stoops has been blown away by the support.

“It's remarkable, it really is,” said Stoops. “I've said it a few times, but again, I really thank (the fans) for their support and their belief and their passion for this program. It's tremendous.”

The Kentucky faithful finally got to see a glimpse of what the new coaching staff had been working on since joining the Big Blue Nation with Stoops coming on board in late November. Stoops promised to bring a new approach to the defensive side of the ball with his offense revisiting a familiar style of play from air-raid era with an up-tempo offense.

As the Wildcats put five passing touchdowns on the board, it marked the return of the old air raid sirens that once carried through the Lexington skies on game day.

With very little decided in the way of starters and roles, all five of Kentucky’s quarterbacks received reps during Saturday evening’s scrimmage, with the majority of the opportunities going to Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Coach Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown have yet to determine who their starting quarterback will be going into the fall, and with very little chance to see them up-close and personal, there’s no hurry to name one.

However, with fairly equal playing time divvied up amongst the signal callers, it was Whitlow who threw and rushed for the most yardage in Brown’s new-look schemes.

Whitlow did a little bit of everything in the game, displaying a strong, accurate arm, finding multiple receivers, and showing off his speed which gives him a unique, additional element to his game. He finished the night 17-of-28 with 193 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while scampering for 49 net yards on seven attempts on the ground while toggling back and forth between the Blue and White squads.

“Jalen did a nice job,” said Stoops. “He has that dimension to run the football and pull it down when something is not there and create, so he did. He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way Jalen played.”

In order to not tip their hand with regards to a starting quarterback, the UK coaches opted to send each of Whitlow, Smith and Towles on to the field for the first play, where they promptly direct snapped the ball to running back Raymond Sanders. From there, as promised, Smith alphabetically took the first real snap at quarterback over the other two.

Defensive back Ashley Lowery made sure it was the defense that made the first big play of the game, as he tipped a Towles pass on the sideline up to himself and came down with it with a foot in bounds to record the lone turnover of the night. Lowery has received praise from defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and the rest of the coaching staff so far this spring. He backed up the talk with the interception and three tackles for the game.

“I've been pleased with Ashley. He's coming along,” Stoops said. “I was standing back there in the secondary, saw him and just watching him and I like the way he's moving around and he's getting better each and every day.”

It was Whitlow, however, that first dusted off the old air raid siren with a 16-yard touchdown pass right at the goal line to A.J. Legree as the White team jumped out in front, 7-0, with 7:38 left in the first quarter.

Legree had a remarkable performance on the evening, hauling in seven passes with 68 yards, including his 16-yard touchdown grab. For the Blue squad, Rashad Cunningham was the go-to receiver for much of the night, including the first score for the Blue team.

Cunningham’s one-yard, over the shoulder touchdown grab in the back corner of the end zone via Patrick Towles was set up by an impressive connection by Towles and tight end John Ballis, whose only catch of the night went for 26 yards and set up the Cunningham score.

Cunningham also caught eight balls on the night that went for 80 yards and a score. His touchdown reception was the lone touchdown pass from Towles on the night. Towles was 6-of-14 passing with 65 yards including his one-yard hookup with Cunningham early in the second quarter to tie things up at 7-7.

Kickers Joe Mansour and Tanner Blain traded field goals in the second quarter, and both teams went into the half tied at 10.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was a mix of the new and old making plays Saturday. Linebacker Avery Williams, last year’s team leader in tackles, led the Blue defense with seven tackles. Right behind him was junior-college transfer Za’Darius Smith, one of Stoops very first additions to the UK roster. Smith contributed six tackles including five solo stops and a tackle for loss from the defensive end position.

Linebacker Malcolm McDuffen led all defenders with eight tackles on the night for the White team, while fellow linebacker Demarius Rancifer kicked in seven stops.

After a slow start offensively to the second half, Whitlow began to make his mark in the game. He mixed in several runs, displaying his speed and elusiveness in the backfield while being able to pick up additional yardage downfield. Whitlow set up the Blue team with a chance to take the lead, leading them down to the 16-yard line. Whitlow then connected with DeMarcus Sweat on a 16-yard touchdown as the Blue team took a 17-10 lead with 4:04 left in the third quarter.

Reese Phillips, a freshman quarterback out of Tennessee who enrolled for the spring semester, got an opportunity to see the Commonwealth Stadium field as well and made quite an impression. The Tennessee native was 10-of-12 in his limited time, throwing for 75 yards and a touchdown to tight end Patrick Ligon from four yards out to build the Blue squad’s lead to 24-10.

The White squad would rally.

After four passing touchdowns in the game, a running back finally crossed the threshold at the 7:52 mark in the fourth quarter. Raymond Sanders, who along with Jonathan George, were the primary running backs for the White squad. It was Sanders who finally punched one in on a one-yard score that brought the White team to within one score at 24-17.

While the quarterbacks drew much of the attention in the spring, Brown’s offense calls for running backs who are capable of not only running the ball, but catching it out of the backfield as well. That was on full display Saturday as eight different backs carried the ball Saturday with 10 receptions by running backs in the game.

The night also marked the return of a healthy Josh Clemons who was sidelined last season by a season-ending knee injury that took place his freshman year. Clemons rushed 10 times for 56 yards and caught two balls for 17 yards on the night.

Maxwell Smith, who was relatively quiet on the evening entering the fourth quarter, made one of the biggest throws of the game late in the fourth to try and pull the White team even. Smith hit Demarco Robinson on a 47-yard connection down the sideline for the longest play in the game and the potential game-tying score.

At 24-23, the White team elected to try and take the lead with a two-point conversion attempt. The passing attempt fell incomplete, leaving the score at 24-23, which would be the final tally.

As the night concluded, both teams met at the 50-yard line to meet with Stoops and the staff at the UK logo for the very first time and the last time until the 2013 season gets underway in August 31 in Nashville, Tenn., when the Stoops era officially gets underway. The night capped off an encouraging four-week, 15-practice stretch of schematic installation and improvement.

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