Football season is officially here, as UK Media Day and Fan Day have come and gone, and the Kentucky Wildcats have begun fall camp.
Following yesterday's ridiculously-packed Fan Day, the team opened practice to the fans, where we got to see our first look at the 2018 roster in its entirety.
Nick Roush and I were in attendance to get the latest update on the team and what fans can expect to see this year.
Here are ten things I learned from the practice:
I’ve never been more confident in the coaching staff
Yesterday was a very humbling experience for me.
In the past, I have been the first person to criticize coaching decisions, schemes, and their responses at press conferences. It’s so easy to jump the gun when things unravel, thinking you know more than those that get paid millions to do their jobs. Everyone can be armchair coaches at times, and I'm just as guilty.
And then I watched them work in practice, and it made me realize how silly it is for me to be so critical, so fast.
These coaches are very, very intelligent and work together exceptionally well. Easily the best since Stoops has been at Kentucky. The chemistry is incredible, as they feed off one another and build on each other's ideas. And they're all gifted as far as football IQ goes. Newly-hired Brad White carried himself like a seasoned veteran, not a new kid on the block. He'll be a massive part of the team going forward, specifically in big-picture situations, as Stoops said at Media Day. Darin Hinshaw was also extremely meticulous with his work with the quarterbacks, watching their every move to fine-tune the kinks in their games.
Stoops, Eddie Gran, and Matt House would pull players aside and walk them through even the tiniest and most specific details in various schemes. The players genuinely respect them, taking it all in like a sponge. Stoops stood at the safety position and watched the plays unfold, going to individual players afterward to tell them how to fix extremely minor mistakes. They want a perfected product and don’t cut corners.
I obviously know Stoops is a smart coach and worked his way up the totem pole to make a name for himself at both Miami and Florida State, but seeing him work in action made me take a step back and realize just how lucky Kentucky is to have him. Freddie Maggard always told me he was all-in on him as head coach, and it made a lot more sense why yesterday. He's still learning as a head coach, but this program is moving forward under his watch.
Now onto the team...
Kentucky’s defense will be one of the best in the SEC
When you look at the unit’s weapons as a whole, there's not a whole lot to dislike. The secondary stood out from the get-go, looking much better than they were last year. There were times the cornerback group was one of the worst units of the team in 2017, and it seems like they used that criticism as motivation in their offseason work.
Derrick Baity participated in just half of the practice segments but looked excellent in his time on the field. Chris Westry seemed to grasp Cover-3 concepts (something he struggled with last year) and stuck with the No. 1 receivers, knocking away one deep ball throw from Terry Wilson to CJ Conrad. Lonnie Johnson also played solid defense on Dorian Baker, who looked healthy and fluid in his return to the team.
Boogie Watson showed out, Kash Daniel made big plays, and the defensive line was a force. Josh Paschal’s absence is a major blow, however long he is out, but I struggle to find an overall weak unit.
With several NFL Draft talents, it's going to be a fun year for the defense.
Mike Edwards will play in the NFL a long, long time
The first word that comes to mind with Edwards is his ridiculous versatility, and it showed in practice. He switched between safety and Nickel throughout the day, even jumping in at cornerback in a few instances. When the punt team came out, Edwards jumped back there as a returner. The senior safety does absolutely everything.
His instincts and intensity are second-to-none. The second a receiver had the ball on his side of the field, Edwards was there to make a play. He had one ridiculous pass breakup on a play that looked to be a sure solid gain from the offense. He's like a safety net for the defense if things go wrong.
Edwards' draft stock was graded out in the 3rd or 4th round this past offseason, and I promise you it's only going up from here. There's a great chance he's a first-rounder when it's all said and done, where he'll then last in the league a long, long time.
Defensive line play blew me away
As Nick said yesterday, this group took arguably the biggest step up from last year. They are long, athletic, explosive, and best of all, deep. Weapons lined the defensive unit, wreaking havoc on a padless offensive line.
Quinton Bohanna, Calvin Taylor, Adrian Middleton, and Davoan Hawkins were standouts on first glance.
The unit may not be filled with stars immediately, but the depth and potential going forward is exciting.
Kash Daniel was the loudest player on the field
Replacing Courtney Love will not be easy, but Daniel is doing whatever it takes to make that happen.
Throughout practice, the junior linebacker was the loudest player on the field, offense, defense, and special teams included. Stoops gave him the challenge of taking over the defense this year, and he has taken that to heart.
The former four-star linebacker has yet to break out as the stud we all anticipated, and it seems like living up to the potential is his No. 1 task at hand this year. He wants to be the leader of the unit.
The offense is better than I gave them credit for
I have to be honest with you, I heard some pretty poor things about the offense this summer, and it had me very nervous for the season. In seven-on-seven scrimmages this offseason, I was told the offense wasn't even in the same stratosphere as th defense in terms of overall talent and cohesiveness. They struggled to score many touchdowns at all.
In person, though, a lot of it had to do with just how talented the defense is.
They didn't struggle to complete passes or make plays the way I expected, the defense just made it extremely hard to do so. I saw it as a positive, honestly.
CJ Conrad is great, Dorian Baker looked healthy and made plays, Benny Snell is obviously a stud. Lynn Bowden was ridiculous with the ball in his hands, and it'll happen a lot this year.
We have inconsistency at quarterback, and they weren’t a complete unit quite yet, but there are absolutely reasons for optimism.
Double tight end sets will be a major part of the offense
To open full offensive sets of the open practice, Eddie Gran worked with a double tight end unit that really caught my attention. It was deadly.
Gunnar Hoak was at center with CJ Conrad, Justin Rigg, Dorian Baker, and Tavin Richardson spread out wide. They were able to connect well with Wilson in, as well.
Fans begged for Gran to work Conrad into the passing game more often, and I think it's obvious that'll happen. Rigg looked really impressive, as well, and it'll be interesting to see how opposing defenses attack an offense with so much size in this set.
Benny Snell will take yet another step up this year
This doesn't need to be said, but Snell will have a very successful year. He makes every play count in practice, running through individuals even after the whistle is blown.
Every stretch, every tiny warmup drill, the Kentucky running back went at it like it was his last. He has a dedication to the game unlike anything I have ever seen before. But you guys knew that, so I won't make this section too long.
One thing the BBN should be very excited for: Snell caught several balls out of the backfield, and it seems like Gran is looking to incorporate this into the offense much more.
Terry Wilson is (probably) the guy, but Kentucky will be fine either way
As I mentioned above, my expectations for the offense going into practice were extremely low, and a lot of it was centered around the quarterback group.
Though they were inconsistent at times, both of them gave me confidence going into 2018. Danny Clark also looked really impressive, a big step up from last season in terms of accuracy, though it'd be a major shock for the redshirt freshman to win the job.
Hoak tends to get antsy under pressure, while Wilson escaped and made plays out of the pocket. His footwork is a little odd right now, something Hinshaw really focused on in the individual drills, but it was something to work with.
Wilson had an accurate cannon on deep balls, something we saw out of Stephen Johnson on occasion the last two years. And he was able to connect with the tight ends in the intermediate game, an aspect the coaching staff has been focused on in the spring and into the summer. If the season started today, it would be Hoak, but the JUCO transfer seems like the long-term option this season and beyond. Wilson had rough misses, and the rust was obviously there, but if he continues to progress in the fall I see him running out there as the day-one starter.
David Bouvier will have a breakout year
Last year, I was told Bouvier was the toughest player to cover in practice. His speed and shiftiness were impeccable, but his size was never in his favor.
Now another year older and physically mature, it's showing in practice.
He was rotating in with the starters in the slot, making major plays while doing so. Think Wes Welker, where he just finds the smallest holes of opportunity and makes things work. If you need five or six yards, Bouvier absolutely has what it takes. He was also the main option at punt return, and it looks like it'll come down to Bouvier and Edwards for the opening-day starter at the position.
Charles Walker was a sure-handed option the past few years, but he lacked the athleticism department. If Bouvier earns the job this year in special teams, I'm convinced he'll be electric both returning punts and in the slot.