RB rotation and a budding freshman: 3 takeaways from Kentucky football's open practice
More than once Saturday, Mark Stoops professed his faith, the confidence that his Kentucky football players and coaches would cure the ills common in the first week of fall camp.
The Wildcats are far from a finished product — as is typical this time of year and as was evidenced by the open practice they held Saturday for fan day — but Stoops didn’t seem too bothered by it.
Still, he admitted his demeanor might change away from the public eye.
“It’s fan day today — I've got to talk to you all,” Stoops said to a scrum of reporters after practice. “I’ll go back up there (to the office) and be a grump. We've got a lot of work to do. I'm confident in the staff and the players, but we have a lot of work to do and that's what (camp is) for.”
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It’s early yet, and Kentucky has progress to make. Even quarterback Will Levis — theoretically among the Cats’ most dependable players — admitted he was off Saturday, saying the offense’s performance was “not up to our standard.”
Here are a few takeaways from a first look at the Wildcats.
It’s running back by committee
When Levis took the field for the first time in a drill against Kentucky’s first-team defense, a newcomer lined up with him in the backfield.
Ramon Jefferson took the first snap with the first team, but it's probably best not to take too much from the move. The Sam Houston State transfer was one of five running backs who saw time with the first-team offense over the course of Saturday’s practice, as Kavosiey Smoke, La’Vell Wright, JuTahn McClain and Chris Rodriguez each got turns as well.
Rodriguez, a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, continues to practice though his playing status remains unclear after an offseason arrest on DUI charges. He had a spectacular one-handed catch on a throw deep down the right sideline from Levis during a drill against the first-team defense.
“I (didn’t) think he had that in him, to be honest,” Levis joked. “No, Chris is awesome. To get him more involved in the passing game was a goal of mine — and just the running backs in general was a goal of mine.”
Smoke, Wright and McClain “bring another level of speed” to the UK backfield, Levis said. And Jefferson has made a strong first impression on his new QB, who called the 5-foot-10, 215-pound senior running back “a bowling ball” and “a little Mighty Mouse.”
"He's got a good feel,” Levis said. "You see he bounces that when he's supposed to bounce it, he cuts when he's supposed to cut. You watch his tape, it just kind of jumps out immediately.”
Keidron Smith isn’t a first-teamer… yet
Levis threw multiple interceptions during drills and another in live play, and Kentucky’s linebackers and defensive backs got their hands on some passes they didn’t pick.
Though it was a strong day in the secondary, there was mild surprise when the first-unit defense took the field without cornerback Keidron Smith, a senior transfer from Ole Miss who’s expected to be a major player in UK’s defensive backfield.
But Stoops has made a habit of easing transfers into starting spots — Levis started practice with the second unit last year — giving familiar faces an early edge. Sophomore Andru Phillips ran with the first team at corner for much of Saturday, but Smith was in that spot for the final sequence of the live period that closed practice.
In the Kentucky defense, Stoops said, defensive backs can be “protected at times,” and he wants to see newcomers in one-on-one drills against wide receivers — Saturday was UK’s first opportunity for those, Stoops said — to get a feel for how they’ll react to challenging matchups.
“I want to see what they can do, want to see them in exposed situations,” Stoops said. “So as camp goes on, we can put them in very difficult situations. I’ll see how they respond to that, how they move.”
The expectation is that Smith, who played 131 games for the Rebels and had five career interceptions, will catch up with time.
He’s following in the footsteps of UK linebacker Jacquez Jones, who played three seasons at Ole Miss, then transferred to Kentucky and took advantage of the extra eligibility afforded by the NCAA’s COVID-19 policy. Jones played in all 12 games for UK last season and helped sway his former roommate from the Rebels to the Wildcats.
“As soon as he hit the portal, I got him on speed telling him 'Go ahead, get up here,’” McClain said. “We’re trying to do something special. We came in together at Ole Miss and we’re about to leave out together at Kentucky, so let's do something special.”
Deone Walker is making waves
Though he didn’t start with the first-team defense, freshman lineman Deone Walker did see first-unit snaps, and the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Detroit product has made a strong early impression in the program.
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“Deone's done a really nice job,” Stoops said. “Really great young man. Works hard. You see the athletic ability in him. Just got to stay the course. There's gonna be ups and downs, but (he has) unbelievable talent. Exactly what we thought when we recruited him.”
Walker was a four-star prospect whom 247Sports rated the No. 3 high school prospect in Michigan’s class of 2022. He had offers from Georgia and Michigan, among others, and early on is living up to his prep pedigree.
“Man, Deone, that's a different cat right there,” Jones said. “Like, he's so big and the way he moves, I feel like Deone, he's special. He's special. Nobody big should be able to be moving like that. So he's a special talent.”