LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Throughout three practices this week and really most of the spring, the Kentucky defense had its way.
After a particularly lackluster effort from the offense on Friday, Neal Brown threw down the gauntlet to his offensive troops heading into a Saturday scrimmage.
“We challenged them this morning because I didn’t think they competed at all yesterday,” Brown said. “I thought they turned it down and that wasn’t good enough. We’re not going to accept not playing hard, not playing physical.”
The message was received and the result encouraging.
“We were just trying to respond,” sophomore running back Josh Clemons said. “Yesterday the defense got after us a little bit and Coach got onto us and motivated us to come out here and get the job done today.”
Mark Stoops said Saturday’s scrimmage was the offense’s best day of the spring. Some of that can be chalked up to the natural “ebb and flow” of spring football – borrowing Brown’s words – but Saturday marked a significant step forward as the Wildcats install a new offensive system.
"Today was really the first day that I thought we looked like an SEC offense," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought our guys competed hard today, they had good energy, we finished plays, and they had fun.”
Many of the mistakes that have plagued UK throughout the spring – turnovers, penalties, dropped passes, missed assignments – disappeared for a day. As a result, the offense was able to both sustain long drives and hit big plays as the Cats worked for the first time in Commonwealth Stadium, the site of next week’s Blue/White Spring Game.
“I think for the first time since I’ve been here I had one side really take over and make some plays and dominate a practice or a scrimmage,” Stoops said.
Fans hearing about the offense’s good day will likely picture the ball flying all over the field in Brown’s Air Raid attack, and quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow did have their best day as a group. The importance of the run, however, should not be dismissed.
“We ran the ball better, which if you run the ball, you can have some opportunities to hit some big play-action passes,” Brown said.
The perception that UK’s new system is all about throwing the ball is wrong to begin with, but considering running back is arguably the deepest and most talented position on the offense, the ground game could become ever more vital.
Jonathan George and especially Raymond Sanders – the two seniors at the position – have consistently impressed throughout the spring and they did so again on Saturday. But it was another player – one who didn’t dress once last season – who ripped off the biggest run of the scrimmage on a long touchdown that sounds vaguely similar to an 87-yard run he had back in 2011, at least based on the description of those who saw it.
“I thought Josh Clemons really stood out today,” Brown said. “He had a couple of nice runs. That was encouraging. He hit one big run up the side.”
The redshirt sophomore is still practicing only every other day as he tries to round back into form after missing a season and a half with a knee injury, but Clemons’ confidence is growing by the carry.
“I’m feeling great,” Clemons said. “I’m not really thinking about it anymore, just going out there and trying to get better and shake off those cobwebs from however long I was out.”
Brown wasn’t willing to say Clemons is back to 100 percent just yet, but it means something that he is beginning to feel like he is.
“That’s the hardest thing with knees, is mentally,” Brown said. “… And if he mentally is there, that’s a huge, huge breaking point really. There’s probably some things he can get better at, but I was big-time encouraged with him today.”
Sanders and George, at least right now, might be better-suited for catching the ball – something backs will be consistently asked to do – but there’s plenty of room for a bruising back like Clemons.
“Ray’s shifty and probably a little bit better out of the backfield and motion-wise and some things, but Josh is a one-cut, downhill (runner),” Brown said. “He’s a load to tackle, and (Dyshawn) Mobley is the same way. Those guys are hard, physical runners.”
There was plenty to be positive about in the passing game as well.
Demarco Robinson overcame a stomach virus to give UK a consistent threat at wide receiver, while A.J. Legree came up with some important third-down catches and Rashad Cunningham made progress. Junior-college transfer Steven Borden had his best day of the spring at tight end, while Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson made a couple plays of their own.
But a good day for the offense means the opposite for the defense. UK’s line – the defense’s most consistent unit this spring – had its moments, but the defense as a whole will need to respond just as the offense did on Saturday.
“The defense came hard last scrimmage, but I guess we held back and let the offense come back and put pressure on us,” defensive end Za’Darius Smith said. “But we just gotta keep working, that’s the main thing.”
The good news is the Cats still have three practices and the spring game to do just that.
“We’ll put the best product we can out there next Saturday,” Stoops said. “We’ll prepare hard this week. We’ve got a lot to get better at. We’ve got to make each practice count and each rep count to get better today, this week. And we’ll do that.”