Sports

UK football: Running back rotation on display at practice

It has been impossible to miss the increased confidence on display among Kentucky football coaches and players in recent weeks, but Saturday’s Fan Day practice offered a chance for Mark Stoops to refocus expectations.

“You could see today still a lot of work to be done,” Stoops said. “We’ve got a lot of things to get better at and correct. I like this team, like the way they compete. They’re grinding, doing the best they can.

“There’s certain areas, certain question marks on this team where we’ve got to work hard, get those answers fixed. There’s other areas that are very strong, but we’ve got to be a complete football team. We’ve got some deficiencies we’ve got to get tidied up, but overall I anticipate we will.”

On a day where the defense displayed a clear edge — as should be expected at this point in preseason camp as quarterback Will Levis works to establish chemistry with a group of young receivers — it is dangerous to read too much into any individual plays. Many of Kentucky’s newcomers are still being eased into action as they learn the playbook, with few changes to the first-team offenses and defenses that left spring practice.

Still, there were some indications of the directions key position battles are headed. Here is a closer look at what we learned during the open practice.

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Mark Stoops participated in Saturday’s football Fan Day and open practice at UK’s Joe Craft Training Facility. The Kentucky head coach said that there’s still a lot to be done before the Sept. 3 season opener. “There’s certain areas, certain question marks on this team where we’ve got to work hard, get those answers fixed.” Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Running back

The big question of the day was how Stoops would handle reps for preseason All-SEC running back Chris Rodriguez, whose status for the start of the season is up in the air after an offseason arrest on DUI charges.

It was fair to say Rodriguez took a smaller share of the first-team snaps than he did during open practices in previous years, but he was still a visible presence with the first-team offense Saturday. Five different running backs (Rodriguez, Ramon Jefferson, JuTahn McClain, LaVell Wright and Kavosiey Smoke) took first-team reps in practice.

Rodriguez remains the clear class of the group — he made a one-handed diving catch on a pass from Levis that might have been the best play of the afternoon — but there is obvious talent on hand among the rest of the group. How Jefferson, listed at 5-foot-10 on the roster, holds up against SEC competition after making the jump from the FCS level is a question, but there is reason to believe Kentucky can handle any absence from Rodriguez.

“They bring another level of speed for one,” Levis said. “I think they can get that edge and really run by people a little easier than (Rodriguez) can. But, if anything, they just bring depth and confidence to the offense. We know we’re four or five deep at running back where we can throw anybody in and know they’re going to get that same gain. Everyone is different, but they can make the same plays that (Rodriguez) can, which is really cool. I’ve never been on a team this deep at running back.”

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Kentucky starting quarterback Will Levis seemed impressed with the Wildcats’ depth at one position. “We know we’re four or five deep at running back where we can throw anybody in and know they’re going to get that same gain.” Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Wide receiver

Stoops has already established that junior DeMarcus Harris, Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson and freshman Dane Key have separated from the pack to enter camp with starting positions. Key in particular continued to impress in Saturday’s practice, making it clear the Lexington native will play a major role as a freshman.

Key will almost certainly not be the only freshman receiver to play this season though. Barion Brown and Jordan Anthony displayed their game-changing speed Saturday and look likely to contribute as well.

“I feel this is definitely the most talented group we’ve had as a whole,” Stoops said of his receivers. “You know, you’ve seen some really talented individual players here, but as a group we’ve never had this kind of depth with the talent they have. Now, they have a long way to go, but I feel really good about that room.”

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Tayvion Robinson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, is expected to claim one of UK’s starting spots at wide receiver. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Offensive tackle

Former five-star recruit Kiyaunta Goodwin did not participate in practice Saturday, so sophomore Deondre Buford took the majority of the first-team reps at left tackle as expected. Stoops declined to go into specifics about any players missing from practice Saturday but said there were no major injuries to report, only a few minor issues and illnesses.

Defensive line

Much-hyped juniors Octavious Oxendine, Justin Rogers and Tre’vonn Rybka have the early lead on starting jobs, but this position will feature heavy rotation in games.

The biggest development Saturday on the line was 6-foot-6, 330-pound freshman Deone Walker receiving first-team snaps.

“That’s a different cat right there,” super senior linebacker Jacquez Jones said of Walker. “He’s so big and the way he moves. Deone, he’s special. Nobody big should be moving like that. He’s a special talent.”

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UK head coach Mark Stoops touched base with defensive back Carrington Valentine during Saturday’s open practice in Lexington. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Defensive backs

Here is a spot that Saturday’s practice probably did not tell us much about where the position battle might ultimately end up. The first-team defense featured cornerbacks Carrington Valentine and Andru Phillips flanking safeties Jalen Geiger and Tyrell Ajian.

You will notice Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith and Texas State transfer Zion Childress were not in that group. The two transfers operated mostly with the second-team defense, but Smith in particular seems likely to earn a starting spot at corner by the opener.

Stoops had praise for Phillips, a spring standout, again Saturday, but he is 2 inches shorter than Smith, and the staff has placed an emphasis on adding size at cornerback this season. Freshman Alex Afari, listed at 6-foot-2, 203 pounds on the roster, could factor in the competition by the start of the season too.

“Those guys we’re just starting to really see them,” Stoops said of the transfer defensive backs. “Today was the first day we were able to do 1-on-1s. … I want to see what they can do. I want to see them in exposed situations. As camp goes on, we can put them in very difficult situations. I’ll see how they respond to that.

“With our defense sometimes, the way we do so much, they can be protected at times. I want to see 1-on-1, when there’s no hiding, who can make plays.”

Special teams

As expected, Robinson fielded punts early in practice. He was joined by Anthony, freshman wide receiver Brandon White and redshirt freshman receiver Dekel Crowdus.

Kicker and punter might be an under-the-radar competition to watch in camp considering the two former walk-ons who manned those positions last year (Matt Ruffolo and Colin Goodfellow) both returned for their extra year of eligibility but will be pushed by scholarship recruits behind them. Stoops confirmed Ruffolo and Goodfellow are the starters though until another player forces him to reevaluate the pecking order.

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Somehow the skies cleared long enough for a large group of spectators to enjoy Saturday’s annual UK football Fan Day activities. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s 2022 football schedule

Home games in all capital letters. Remaining kickoff times to be announced later.

Sept. 3: MIAMI (OHIO), 7 p.m.

Sept. 10: At Florida, 7 p.m.

Sept. 17: YOUNGSTOWN STATE, Noon

Sept. 24: NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Oct. 1: At Mississippi

Oct. 8: SOUTH CAROLINA

Oct. 15: MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 22: Off week

Oct. 29: At Tennessee

Nov. 5: At Missouri

Nov. 12: VANDERBILT

Nov. 19: GEORGIA

Nov. 26: LOUISVILLE




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