New offense, impact transfers among storylines to watch in UK football spring practice
LEXINGTON – Change is in the air for Kentucky football this spring.
The Wildcats open spring practice Tuesday with a new-look offense and a handful of impact transfers and early enrollees already on campus. There will be no spring game this year as Kroger Field is being used as a COVID-19 vaccination site, but Mark Stoops and his program still hope for significant progress out of the spotlight over the next month.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Wildcats in spring practice.
1. Learning curve for Liam Coen’s offense
It has been just more than three months since Stoops hired former Los Angeles Rams assistant quarterbacks coach Liam Coen as his new offensive coordinator, but the Wildcats only this week will start the bulk of the work implementing Coen’s system.
“We’ve had the opportunity to meet with our players and have walkthroughs. We’ve already implemented some things for them, but there’s a great deal for them to go through,” Stoops said Monday. “Everything is going to be new from terminology to formations to the operation. From getting under center, different tempos, different cadences. There’s a lot. There’s a lot that goes into it, so we really have to use these practices wisely.”
Stoops hired Coen with the goal of implementing a more balanced offensive attack after the passing game floundered in recent years under former offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
The new system should represent a fresh start for many players, especially the Wildcats’ little-used wide receivers, but there could be a steep learning curve in the early going. Complicating matters is the fact that Kentucky will need to break in a new quarterback and the offensive line and running backs also must learn under new position coaches.
Do not expect a decision to be made on the quarterback battle this spring considering Penn State transfer Will Levis will not arrive until the summer.
“We spread it out we can take our time, have really quality meetings in between our practices and use our time wisely,” Stoops said. “We have five weeks to get a lot better. … The scheme is fancy for media, for our team, for our players and everything, but it’s still a fundamental game. That’s what we can’t get away from. Obviously, there’s so much big picture things to get in and to get done and to install, but you’ve also fundamentally always got to get better every time you take the field.”
2. Newcomers could earn key roles
Depth is generally a concern for teams during spring football with the previous season’s seniors gone and most of the incoming recruits still in high school. Not for Kentucky this year, though.
Nine seniors from the 2020 roster elected to use the extra year of eligibility granted all players due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three FBS transfers joined the roster for the spring semester. Eight members of the 2021 recruiting class are already on campus.
“It just feels like we’re so much deeper than we’ve ever been,” Stoops said.
Among the new faces, former Mr. Kentucky football and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson will attract the most fan interest this spring. Robinson should pair with Josh Ali, one of the seniors using the extra year, as the top wide receiver options in Coen’s offense.
“You don’t need to watch much film or watch Wan’Dale very long to see how talented he is,” Stoops said. “I think what’s been great for me to see is reaffirming my thoughts on him. … He’s not only talented, but he’s very dedicated. He works really hard and he’s committed to it. That excites me. You want that to spread to other guys. You always want to bring guys into the program that are going to affect people in a positive way.”
3. Opportunity for much-hyped defensive linemen
Kentucky must replace two starting defensive linemen in its base 3-4 system for the 2021 season. Senior defensive end Josh Paschal returns as a starter and senior Marquan McCall should take over the nose guard duties from NFL draft prospect Quiton Bohanna, but the third starting spot is wide open and new faces will be needed to round out the rotation.
Defensive line was the strength of Kentucky’s 2020 signing class, headlined by five-star prospect Justin Rogers. That group, which also includes four-star prospects Josiah Hayes, Octavious Oxendine and Tre’Vonn Rybka, played sparingly during the shortened 2020 season but will be needed to fill larger roles this fall.
How the young linemen progress in the spring will say much about expectations for a defense that has several holes to fill.
“I’m really not worried about the expectations,” Stoops said. “I am worried about day-to-day, each of those players challenging themselves to get better each and every day. I think they all have a very good work ethic. They’re very talented.
“…All talented guys that need individually to just concentrate on themselves and just get better day by day. There’s no magic formula. You’ve just got to go out and work every day and get better.”