Wan'Dale Robinson is 'the truth' and other things we've learned in UK spring practice

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Kentucky football fans will have to wait months for a first-hand view of the Wildcats’ new-look offense and overhauled defense.

Ongoing COVID-19 precautions have prevented UK coach Mark Stoops from opening any spring practices to fans or the public. There will not be a spring game either as Kroger Field is being used for COVID-19 vaccinations and testing.

For now, we have only the word of UK players and coaches to determine who is making strides in three practices. Through two weeks, several names have begun to separate from the pack.

MORE:Kentucky loses starting receiver to transfer portal as offensive makeover continues

Here is a look at three players earning the most praise so far.

WR Wan’Dale Robinson

Dec 18, 2020; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson (1) gains yards after the catch during the second half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium.

The decisions of Allen Dailey and Bryce Oliver to transfer out of the program was a surprise, but at least part of those moves can likely be attributed to the impact Nebraska transfer and former Mr. Kentucky Football Wan’Dale Robinson is already making in spring practice.

“Something I want you all to know is that Wan’Dale Robinson is a great football player,” defensive end Josh Paschal said Thursday when asked what fans should know about spring practice so far. “He’s going to be the truth, I believe that. He’s a humble guy. … He’s going to be a special player for sure.’”

As a freshman at Nebraska in 2019, Robinson was named a second-team Freshman All-American by The Athletic and was one of four finalists for the Paul Hornung Award that ultimately when to Kentucky star Lynn Bowden. He caught 40 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns and rushed 88 times for 340 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games that season.

Robinson appeared in eight games during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, catching 51 passes for 461 yards and one touchdown and rushing 46 times for 240 yards and one touchdown.

Between Robinson and Josh Ali, who is using the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility to return to school, Kentucky appears to have the type of one-two receiving punch it has lacked since Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson starred together in 2016.

“Just his movements and the way he explodes, you can see how fluid he is, and you can feel his presence, the way he accelerates and puts pressure on a defense,” Stoops said of Robinson on the eve of spring practice. “That’s not hard to see. I think that will come. We’ll go through this spring and he’ll get better and better, but you can watch his film and watch him on TV from a year ago and you can see the talent, see the explosiveness, but it’s also good to see the mindset that he has and the commitment level that he has.”

MORE:Drawing plays since 4 years old, new Kentucky offensive coordinator has football in his blood

NG Marquan McCall

DL Marquan McCall shakes the hand of a young fan during the UK football Fan Day at Nutter Field House in Lexington, Kentucky on Saturday, August 4, 2018.

Kentucky has several holes to fill on defense. Perhaps none bigger than at nose guard where 6-foot-4, 357-pound behemoth Quinton Bohanna played his last game for UK in the Gator Bowl.

The good news is senior Marquan McCall, a former four-star recruit who received extensive snaps as Bohanna’s backup in recent years, appears to have taken a significant step forward.

“I’m trying not to go all in right now, but Marquan is playing at a high level,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “We need to just keep it there. It’s one of those you don’t want to heap too much praise too early, but he’s got a chance to be a force for us.”

McCall endeared himself to fans with a fiery personality and his occasional highlight-reel worthy mauling of opposing offensive linemen, but he has struggled to find any consistency and needed to get in better shape to take on a larger role.

So far, so good for the 6-foot-3, 379-pound lineman called “Bully” by his teammates.

“I know he’s poised for a big season,” Paschal said of McCall. “The one thing with Quan before was consistency and staying that way. Everything that you see us do on the field, there could be things that Quan was going through that may have led him to not be consistent in the past. But now, I can really see the maturity level that he has right now.

“He’s really a leader as far as the d-line. I’m really proud of him for that. He really stepped up this offseason. He made that change. He flipped that switch to where we can see he’s going to be a dominant guy up front.”

MORE:Kentucky football roster: Who's transferring? Who's returning? Who's headed to NFL?

WR Clevan Thomas

UK WR Clevan Thomas Jr. catches a touchdown pass during the University of Kentucky football game against the University of Arkansas at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

Robinson and Ali may draw most of the attention at wide receiver, but another veteran at the position may have been the biggest surprise of spring practices so far.

“I think Clevan (Thomas) has done a nice job as well,” new offensive coordinator Liam Coen said earlier this week. “Clevan has stepped up big time for us over the last week. He’s done some really nice things. He’s working his tail off. He runs great routes. He’s hustling around. He’s really one of the only guys that’s playing multiple positions right now, and he can handle it.”

Thomas has endured an up-and-down career through four years at Kentucky.

He was a consistent target of praise during his first preseason camp as a freshman in 2017 but only caught four passes over his first two seasons. After appearing in three games in 2018 without a significant impact, Thomas sat out the rest of the season to preserve a year of eligibility as a redshirt.

Thomas experienced something of a breakout in 2019, starting the last seven games at slot receiver after Lynn Bowden moved to quarterback. He caught 11 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown that season, but faded to the background again in 2020, playing in just four of 10 games and recording only one catch.

The new offensive system and coaching staff could be the boost Thomas needed to push for a larger role again.

“He hasn’t gotten the exposure that he’s supposed to get or that he deserves, but that’s like my brother,” Ali said of Thomas. “We’re from the same place, I talk to him all the time, try to keep his head right. I feel like he’s going to be a big shock to a lot of people this year.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ