Practicing outside for the first time this spring, second-year Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops and the Wildcats took advantage of a picture-perfect weather day in Lexington on Monday morning with a good practice at the Nutter Training Center.
“Pretty decent day,” said Stoops, who joked the team must have stayed up late Sunday night watching the men’s basketball team advance to their 16th Final Four, because they were a little sluggish. “Overall, decent work here the first two days (of spring practice). It is good to get outside with a good weather day today.”
The Kentucky head coach has been happy so far with the progress he has seen in his team from last season to this spring. Stoops, who mentioned after the spring’s first practice last Friday that things felt better and different this spring, said the team just needs to continue its on-field improvement every chance it gets because physically and mentally they are better.
“We are doing a lot of things better,” Stoops said. “We are physically better, which I talked about the other day. I think the quarterbacks and receivers are more on the same page for early in camp and throwing it better. Overall, decent work and need to continue to progress here through spring.”
Stoops did address a few off-the-field issues Monday, announcing that senior wide receiver Javess Blue will miss spring practice after an offseason shoulder injury required surgery. Stoops said Blue underwent successful surgery last Friday and is facing “three months to four months” of rehabilitation, but should be ready to go in August. Stoops said the injury was sustained while Blue was working with fellow teammates this winter individually to improve. Blue led Kentucky in receiving last season with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns.
Stoops also announced that senior wide receiver Demarco Robinson, who was suspended indefinitely at the end of last season, is practicing with the team this spring.
One storyline developing early this spring is who will replace linebacker Avery Williamson, who paced the Wildcats in tackles each of the last two seasons. Stoops said Monday the Wildcats not only have to replace Williamson – who was at practice Monday catching up with former teammates – on the field, but off the field in a leadership capacity as well. Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot both said they have been encouraged with how senior defensive ends Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith have stepped up their leadership roles, but they want to see more consistency.
“I was encouraged with the offseason, guys like Bud and Z,” Stoops said. “Out here at practice and today we need to remind them to continue to push that way. Avery is tough to replace, but Bud has been very good in that role.”
“I think he is doing everything that he needs to do to be that person,” Eliot said when asked about Dupree stepping up to be a leader this season. “I want to see a guy that not only leads by example, but leads vocally too, that is what Avery did. When you are a leader, you have to do what is right, not what is popular. Sometimes players get confused about those two different things. You can get a lot of people to like you if it is popular, but that doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do. Sometimes you have to stand up against popularity and do the right thing to get people to follow you.”
Defensively, Eliot said his goal this spring is to put in all the base defenses UK will have this fall so the players have a good understanding of the different type of schemes they may run. Eliot said he has been pleased with his defense overall in the first two practices, echoing Stoops’ comments last Friday that junior college transfer A.J. Stamps has stood out athletically, while Dupree “continues to do good things,” according to Eliot.
The Wildcats will return to the practice fields this week on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, completing one-third of the spring practice schedule.
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The 6-foot guard is the only player in the American Athletic Conference to rank among the top five in league-only stats in scoring (18.0 points per game), assists (4.7), steals (2.3), and 3-point percentage (.474).
Currently, Smith is one of four finalists for the Naismith Men's College Player of the Year Trophy and one of 15 on the final ballot for the prestigious John R. Wooden Award ballot.
Collectively, Smith is part of the winningest senior class in school history at 121-30 (.801) with Tim Henderson, Luke Hancock, and Stephan Van Treese and has helped Louisville to two BIG EAST Tournament titles, the American Athletic Conference Tournament crown, four-consecutive NCAA Tournaments, two NCAA Final Fours, and a school-record 35 wins en route to the 2013 NCAA Championship.