In this edition of AllWildcats’ Four Downs, we examine some of the early storylines developing from the first week of fall camp at Kentucky, including the emergence of two sophomore receivers as possible big-play men in the UK offense.
1. The Juice Crew:
With a deep stable of talented receivers and a new downfield passing mentality in the offensive scheme, Big Blue Nation has been wondering who may emerge as the Cats’ big-play guy this season. Early indications point to two candidates: sophomores Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet. Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 182-pound Florida native who is better known as “Juice” among his coaches and teammates, has been cited on a daily basis for consistent playmaking. Fans will certainly recall his monster performance last season in the near-upset of Florida, a night where he caught six Patrick Towles passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns at The Swamp. Look for more of those type of stat lines from him this season. Badet, another Sunshine State product, showed promise as a freshman in 2013 when he caught 22 passes for 285 yards and a touchdown, but he experienced a setback last year when a freak eye injury forced him to redshirt. Now at full health, he is being described as perhaps UK’s most explosive offensive weapon with elite speed. New offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson thinks he could have a 100-reception player on this year’s team, and the smart money is on one of these two young players to make it happen.
2. Strong Back End:
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has been beaming about the amount of talent the Cats have collected at the safety position. It was a position of weakness when the staff arrived in Lexington three years ago, but now it’s becoming one of the deepest on the team. There was already a healthy dose of excitement with senior A.J. Stamps returning after an impressive first year in the program (56 tackles, five pass break-ups, four interceptions) coming out of the JUCO ranks, but juniors Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson also showed glimpses of stardom last season, and redshirts Mike Edwards and Darius West have been drawing lots of attention early in camp for their physical play. It’s a good position to have this kind of depth because of the “multiple” UK defensive scheme that often deploys an additional safety as a hybrid nickelback who can either cover the slot or rush the passer. McClain excelled in that role last season, posting seven pass break-ups and two sacks. West, who was a highly-coveted four-star prospect out of the Ohio high school ranks, could emerge as one of the best “enforcers” in years that UK has featured on the back end of the defense.
3. Mighty George:
When early freshman enrollee George Asafo-Adjei started getting first-team reps this spring and loads of praise from the UK coaching staff, it was easy to question whether that was a legit assessment of his talent level or perhaps an attempt to motivate some of the veteran O-Linemen to push themselves harder. After almost a week of camp, it appears that any skepticism was likely misplaced. The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Ohio native has been getting more first-team reps and is said to be emerging as a potential leader at his position. How often has that ever been said about a so-called “true” freshman? I can’t recall it in any of my 20-plus years covering UK football. Antonio Hall may have been close, but this is the most public praise I’ve seen for a young lineman at this stage in camp. It helps that Asafo-Adjei was already one of the strongest players on the team when he hit the ground running.
4. Attention to Detail:
One of the themes that keeps popping up from Stoops dating all the way back to SEC Media Days is that the UK boss wants to see more discipline and focus from his team than it showed in 2014. He has harped about playing “the right way” and how the mental side of football is just as important as physical side. When it comes to the physical, you can tell this UK staff loves its roster heading into this season. The Cats have developed nice depth across the board, and three outstanding recruiting classes have them in a position to challenge more SEC opponents on the field. But those games always figure to be close, hard-fought battles, and they often come down to a play here or a play there. Stoops wants the self-inflicted mistakes reduced significantly as camp continues to move forward.