LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — What do you do when your wide receiver corps is banged up to the point where coaches have been running a few routes during spring practice?
You feed the running backs.
The Blue and White teams for the University of Kentucky football team rolled up 601 yards of offense in the Wildcats’ annual spring game. Of those, 328 came on the ground in a 38-14 victory for the Blue team before a crowd of 35,117 in Commonwealth Stadium.
JoJo Kemp carried 11 times for 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Braylon Heard had 55 yards on seven carries and Josh Clemons 4 carries for 40 yards with the starting unit, and 7 carries for 55 yards for the White team, made up of offensive reserves.
“I feel good about our depth (at running back, I really do,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “As you know, we need it, and I like the way those guys played. You can see Jojo is a different guy. He's healthier. His ankles are healthier. He's stronger. He's more explosive. And certainly having Braylon Heard, we are awfully excited about Braylon. He's just got a calmness about him. He always competes, but he's a very mature kid and he's explosive out there. So great to have him. You saw the other guys, too.”
In a keenly anticipated competition between three young quarterbacks, redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles was the clear leader, completing 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards in combined series with the two teams. He was 9 of 10 for 110 yards with the starters.
Highly touted freshman Drew Barker was 7 of 19 for 74 yards and a touchdown. Reece Phillips was 10 of 17 for 74 yards and a TD. The first-team QBs were a combined 19 of 33 for 234 yards and three touchdowns.
“We're a little bit more efficient at throwing and catching the ball,” Stoops said. “We are by no means a finished product, but I felt like we've improved, certainly from the fall. This spring we are getting better. Got a long way to go. But overall, I was very happy with the team's energy. They have been solid all spring, really. “
Stoops described his defense as “pretty vanilla.” But Za’Darius Smith did stand out when he picked a screen pass from Towles out of the air and likely would’ve returned it for a touchdown had the play not been blown dead.
Stoops said the quarterback competition would continue into the fall — not as close to the start of the season as it did last year, perhaps. But he was non-committal on Saturday.
“I think you saw Patrick do some good things. You saw the other quarterbacks do some good things. Patrick, along with the other two, were a little bit shaky at times, as well, like you'd expect, a rushing a few things, missed a few throws, things that they would like to have over but Patrick is improved, you saw him a year ago and you see him now, you see the improvement and I'm proud of that. I think we are better around him. I think when we have everybody healthy, all the quarterbacks will look better. So there's no decision yet. I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well. I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see.”
When pressed on when a decision might come, Stoops wouldn’t bite.
“We are going to go back and look at this tape and we'll look at the spring in its entirety and look at all the drives and everything we've been through and we'll sit down next week and see where we are at as a staff. I respect how important it is to tell you all right away (laughter) but we'll make some decisions in-house and see where we're at. You know, again, right now, with three guys, it's been helpful, honestly, because when you are competing with four and five, it's hard being just the reps. It has not distracted from anybody at this point because we get so many reps in the spring.”
In his first performance before UK fans, Barker said he had fun, but felt he could’ve played better. He should be finishing his senior year at Connor High School, but graduated early so he could get to campus and start work.
“It was fun to get out there for the first time in front of the crowd and stuff. It was a good atmosphere,” Barker said. “As you can see, there is still a lot of room for improvement but, individually, I know I could get better. I know I didn’t have my best day but that’s all right. I’m still supposed to be in high school. But, as a team, I thought we did some really good things and I think this spring we really have put a step forward in the right direction. I’m really looking forward to how we go through the summer and into the fall camp.”
Meanwhile, Towles, who many assumed might be headed out of the program after not playing last season, now emerges from spring practice as the front-runner to be the starter this fall.
“And as you saw today, I am a totally different player than I was last year,” Towles said. “It is night and day. I am excited about where we are at as a team, where we are as an offense and excited about where we are going. (His improvement) is not necessarily changes as far as mechanically, but my release is a lot shorter. It really just starts with work, work and more work. You can always rep more on your own and I feel like my drop, my feet have gotten so much better. My feet are fast, they were slow and average but now they are fast enough to make plays.”