SPRING GAME OBSERVATIONS: Analysis one week and several viewings removed

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

CatsIllustrated.com takes an in-depth look at Kentucky's spring game, played last Friday, with a week's perspective and several close replay viewings serving as helpful hindsight.

We're uncovering the biggest standouts, the mightiest struggles, the personnel findings and much more.

This recap and analysis is broken down into manageable segments. It's not a comprehensive look at every player and it's heavier on some position and player reviews than others. Evaluating the play of individual offensive linemen, for instance, is a much more difficult task than breaking down the performance of those not on the lines.

But it's a best effort at uncovering some truths about Kentucky's football team as it ended the spring and looks toward the fall. It is both objective and subjective, the former in its detailed accounting of meaningful plays and outcomes, but subjective inasmuch as it's an analysis with conclusions that won't be shared by every CatsIllustrated.com reader and diehard UK football fan. And that's okay. We welcome your feedback, positive or negative, and respectful differences of opinion are a healthy remedy for lazy, unexamined narratives and groupthink.

Further disclaimers: Not even every significant contributor will be mentioned at length, and more notably, this analysis is heavy on first half play, since that's when the starters saw most of their more revealing action.

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The offense is very different with Gunnar Hoak behind center

Hoak's first throw was a deep pass to Johnson with Westry covering. He drew a pass interference call. Aggressive call by Eddie Gran, letting the freshman QB air it out against a cornerback with several inches on a receiver on a vertical route.

Hoak did run the read option the next couple of plays (A.J. Rose, Zach Johnson) and it's clear the defense doesn't respect him as a runner as much as Johnson.

Later first series Hoak was pressured by several defensive linemen up the middle on good coverage. He showed an impressive knack for eluding the pressure at just the right moment. Incomplete, but liked how he didn't bail from the pocket prematurely.

Not only did I like how Hoak threw accurately on the run with his eyes upfield, but he continued scanning the field and didn't lock onto one guy in those tough situations.

Hoak was very good at checkdowns. I did notice that when Hoak felt pressure in the pocket and couldn't escape he had a minor tendency to throw off his back foot. But it didn't bite him and he was still accurate.

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I'm not a QB coach and could be totally wrong about this, but sometimes when Hoak got really good protection he anticipated a pass rush from the pocket wasn't there and checked down to a short route a little too quickly. But, again, this is a minor critique from what was otherwise a really good performance.

Hoak is a ballsy quarterback as a passer, to put it crudely. When he sets his mind to throwing down the field, particularly down the sideline, he doesn't really second guess himself. He really tested Westry, who almost had an interception on a deep throw down the sideline to Ross in the second quarter. The good thing is Hoak's more dangerous throws were over the top down the sideline instead of over the middle of the field, and he was just doing what he wanted to do, not necessarily making bad decisions. He's just going to sling it and force the defender to make a play, get a big gain or draw PI.

After Beckham's interception on Johnson, Hoak had a really nice first down scramble. The defensive line was gassed and maybe Hoak sensed it because he was quick to take off. I think his scrambling is really going to hurt defenses when they're fatigued because he's relentless getting outside the pocket. That tendency will also make those big 280-300 pound defensive linemen (for the opposition) run a lot more.

It must be mentioned that Hoak looked better and more comfortable throwing from between the tackles in the second half so that might have been a point of emphasis either after his first half play or in an attempt to get him more reps with the entire playbook.


Stephen Johnson struggled in his big spring audition

Nice protection on the deep throw by Johnson on the first drive of the game. Kyle Meadows blocked well in space. Johnson underthrew Baker badly. It was exactly 50 yards downfield but from the left hash to the right, so not an easy throw but given the protection it was definitely poorly thrown.

One of Johnson's best throws came on the second drive. He got good protection on the first play and threaded a nice needle on a frozen rope to Charles Walker in stride. What I liked most was the pace of the offense after that play. Johnson was in total command and got the unit to the line quickly. No celebration, no regrouping.

In the second quarter he tried a deep out to Ross on the left sideline and it was into coverage (incomplete) and just a bad read. Eddie Gran was talking to the sideline reporter and knew he missed the throw.

One thing that stood out in the spring game was how Hoak and Johnson use the pocket. While Johnson is probably the better runner, he stays in the pocket longer, eluding pressure and stepping up between the tackles, whereas Hoak much prefers to roll out and throw on the road. That's probably playing to their strengths. Good and bad with both approaches. Hoak throws well on the run so it puts the defense in a tough spot, but sometimes he bails or checks down a little quick. Johnson may be more sack prone because he makes shorter steps and covers less distance eluding pressure. The defense doesn't break down as much that way (and he threw a pick to Kei Beckham on one instance when he finally had to get rid of it in the middle of the field), but trusting your protection is usually a good sign.

On Johnson's accuracy: It wasn't there. It was for Hoak. Johnson is going to stand more in the pocket and for him to be effective as a passer, with defenses staying in zone and leaning on a pass rush differently than when Hoak is in the game, Johnson has to be very good on intermediate stuff over the middle. He was not.

The more I watched this game (and I watched it more than I care to admit), I came away feeling as though Hoak may legitimately be the better quarterback. Now, I don't think that's going to lead to Johnson losing his job. He's got a long leash, he's earned it, and this was a scrimmage. But I saw more positives from Hoak than I did initially. More importantly, I saw some clear strengths in Hoak's tendencies that redefine the offense when he's in the game, and his strengths, I believe, cater to Kentucky's receivers and their success a little more than Johnson. While Hoak needs to work on staying in the pocket a little more (only a little more), I think Johnson's reluctance to get outside makes Kentucky's passing game easier to defend.

We know that Johnson is capable of hitting those intermediate-long range clutch throws (see: Louisville), but have we really seen enough to comfortably believe he's going to consistently do it against good defenses when UK doesn't have the Snell-Boom tandem this year, or Jeff Badet over the top?


Sihiem King's performance

I took a minority position after the game that I wasn't blown away by King's performance. I do think there was some good with some reason for pause.

One glaring example of an issue that will arise again was demonstrated on second down inside the redzone at the start of the second quarter. The blocking was set up very well and King didn't hit the hole fast enough. He was strung out and defenders Jamin Davis and Ja'Quizz Cross teamed up to drag him down. To King's credit, he ran a lot harder on the very next play to get tough yards up the middle, so he probably got the memo from someone, or knew it himself.

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He was asked to run from the Wildcat near the goal line and that's not his strength but he did eventually get it in.

The biggest positive, for King, was that he logged 19 carries. For a smaller back who will always carry durability and workload questions, even in a spring game that's a good number.

A.J. Rose was limited to three carries because of an injury and he has his own issues to continue to improve on (proving he's mastering the playbook, durability because he hasn't carried a workload in college before, etc.), but in his one highlight carry, his first of the game, he looked like the most electric back in the game.


Analysis of the wide receiver play

David Bouvier found some holes in the defense and could have had more big plays. He had a really nice open field block on Jaylin Bannerman on the Blue team's second nice screen. Bouvier had a nice rapport with Johnson when they were both backups before the start of last season and he could be a darkhorse candidate to break the rotation.

Blake Bone navigated the middle of the field well on a screen in the first quarter. On the next play he had a nice downfield block to spring Charles Walker for more yards on an out route where he was wide open.

Dorian Baker had a drop on a second quarter crossing pattern. Would not have been a big gain but reinforces a narrative. Can't judge him on that, though.

Clevan Thomas was impressive, especially the way he found openings in the defense and came back to help the quarterback. Because that's one of his strengths, I think he's probably a better tandem with Hoak (who gets outside the pocket allowing for more of those opportunities) than for Johnson.

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Tavin Richardson displayed impressive athleticism but has to hold onto the football. He will be counted on to start stepping up this year, with the exodus looming after this season. He made the most of his target opportunities but had a fumble and that's the kind of mistake that won't be tolerated for long in the regular season. But as with Baker's drop, it would be foolish to read too much into that.

Ryan Kendall probably won't log many snaps this year but he was a reliable underneath option in the game.

As for Kayaune Ross, he looked the part of the big-play threat that everyone has known him to be. He clearly has a penchant for finding the endzone, whether it games, scrimmages or practice, and he is surely a breakout candidate this fall if some things go right. But as is the case with so many recent Kentucky receivers, consistency will be the buzzword. Hoak looked to him without hesitation and at worst Ross could be a redzone weapon.


Tight end play in the spring game

After watching the spring game I believe the order of tight ends ought to be C.J. Conrad, Greg Hart and Justin Rigg, which is probably exactly what it is. The reason being, aside from Conrad's upside (though he didn't play), Hart's consistency as a blocker and the fewer blocking breakdowns that came when he was in the game. Some of that's Hart's game and some of it is just Rigg's inexperience. And remember, Rigg missed most of last season, which means that although he's technically a sophomore, his development as a blocker was stunted with the missed action last year.

I will say this about Rigg, however. I think he would benefit more from Hoak being at quarterback than Johnson in much the same way that Thomas would at receiver. When Hoak is rolling out and looking downfield or checking down, that's an offense Rigg could thrive in. In a more conventional block and go over the middle game, that plays more to Hart's strengths. So the main reason I think it's Conrad-Hart-Rigg for now (though Rigg may well be a starter when Conrad leaves) is the offense, as it exists under present starter Johnson, is better suited to Hart. If Hoak were the quarterback then I would probably say Rigg would thrive more and the tight end would become much more a part of the offense.


Offensive line play reviewed

Bunchy Stallings did a great job sealing off the edge for Sihiem King on a nice scamper down the sideline when the Blue team got into White team territory on their second drive.

Next play was a well-executed screen to Benny Snell in the middle of the field and I saw George Asafo Adjei getting out in front of the play and executing a great open field block on Kash Daniel (who, to his credit, read the screen better than anyone). That was far from Asafo-Adjei's only impressive play. He drove his feet well when King ran downfield and blew open some really nice holes, getting to the second level.

First drive for the White team in the second quarter, Drake Jackson did a great job sealing the middle, with some help, on a third and long conversion on a shovel pass.

Tate Leavitt was flagged for a false start in the redzone in the second quarter. Mark Stoops didn't look amused.


Signature defensive line moments

White team's first possession, Adrian Middleton blew OG Mason Wolfe up at the point of attack for a TFL. Just bull rushed him.

Calvin Taylor seemed to beat Stenberg on a nice stuff at the line on the second series but credit goes to Matt Elam (didn't recognize when first watching) for beating his man and forcing King to make a hard cut back into Taylor. On the same drive, next third down, Elam blew up his man and forced King to cut back across the line for very little, although it was a first. On the next play, however, Elam got stood up and knocked on his butt. That was a nice run by King.

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Jacob Hyde was in position to make some plays but didn't have enough burst or range to get to ball carriers when he had angles.


Boogie Watson's three sacks stood out

Boogie Watson's first sack in the game was a protection breakdown by left guard Logan Stenberg. Got caught flat footed looking for the inside rush and left Watson a wide open lane.

His second sack probably wouldn't have been a sack in a real game. The touch sack rule was pretty unfair to Cole Mosier, although I will say that Watson's speed gave the rising senior tackle some trouble.

His third sack was a coverage sack. He had run past Johnson, who stayed in the pocket and did the right stuff, and just flew back into the play as Johnson approached the line of scrimmage. Watson has great closing speed and good length.

Watson could have easily had another sack in the second quarter chasing Hoak down but he let up and just swiped with his hand (spring game rules and whatnot). Mason Wolfe (RT) and Tate Leavitt (RG) were anticipating a corner blitz by Westry. It didn't come and Watson came through unscathed on the right side. Would have been a sack in a real game.


More linebacker notes

I really like Daniels instincts. He doesn't have OLB speed or range but he diagnosed most plays in the middle of the field well.

Jamin Davis had a lot of tackles so you'd think he was around the ball a lot. He was. I also noticed that he's got some strength development in store. Give him a couple of years and he's making more of those tackles at or closer to the LOS. But he's got the instincts and athleticism. Not really fair to judge him against Snell early, though. He sniffed out a shovel pass in the second quarter. He plays bigger than he is already. Give him some weight, as I said, and he can be a beast.

Eli Brown let David Bouvier get behind him on a seam route and was fortunate Johnson overthrew him. Otherwise that coverage breakdown leads to a touchdown easily.


Key defensive back points

Second drive for the Blue team, Kei Beckham made a great open field tackle on Dorian Baker. That's no small task. Beckham, of course, had the pick on Johnson in the second quarter. He read Johnson's eyes really well. Promising sign: The pick came in zone coverage, and that has been a weak spot at times for UK. Could be a strength for Beckham. It was an impressive pick because Beckham was a bit off balance trying to cover a man and he reacted extremely quickly, adjusted in the air and made a smooth play on the ball.

Second quarter, White team's Jordan Griffin made a great hit to jar the ball loose from Clevan Thomas in the endzone. On the very next play Hoak hit Kayaune Ross on a perfectly executed fade on the right side. Derrick Baity probably couldn't have defended it much better and I think Ross' toe was probably on the line.

Chris Westry did some strong things in coverage aside from the pass interference call. He was aggressive making plays on the ball when he was tested and didn't back down.


Punting woes continue

Bear in mind, no punt rush. His first punt was from inside the offense's 40 yard line. Needed to boom. I counted less than four seconds of hang time on a short punt that gave great field position. Subsequent punts had more or the same hang time, which means that wasn't really worse, but not until late did he get the distance he needed. He obviously had a big leg in high school and you'd think it didn't disappear, so I have to believe part of this is mental. Unfortunately, I'm sure the pressure is mounting with each disappointing punt and he's got a few months to figure it out.

RELATED: Biggest lingering question about UK football with spring practice over

After last season I wrote that Kentucky's punt coverage unit was actually very, very good, and probably underrated (maybe one of the best nationally), when you look at the numbers they allowed (or rather, didn't) considering how many punts opponents were able to field and how many dangerous opportunities were allowed.

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