Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops isn’t ready to even think about a quarterback controversy one week into his team’s spring practice.
Stephen Johnson took over last season after Drew Barker got hurt and led UK to wins in seven of its final 11 games. He obviously went into spring practice No. 1, especially with Barker coming off offseason back surgery.
“Drew is coming along but he is not yet 100 percent,” Stoops said. “Stephen will be taking most of the snaps with the ones (first unit in spring practice). But Drew is stronger than I anticipated.The way he looks running and moving around, he looks in really good shape. We just don’t want any setbacks for him but pushing him too hard. We have plenty of practices between now and the first game.”
Stoops also expects Johnson, a junior college transfer, to be an improved player in his second full season at Kentucky.
“Just the experience alone will make him better,” Stoops said. “There are so many areas we must improve on and certainly Stephen will. There is probably no one on our team more conscientious than he is. He wants to be perfect and knows one area he must improve on is turnover margin.”
The coach is also not worried about a “sophomore slump” for running back Benny Snell, one of UK’s most pleasant surprises last year when he became one of the best running backs in the Southeastern Conference.
“He is a guy that is very mature and he is going to have to be,” Stoops said. “He has heard plenty about what a good year he had and is getting all the accolades he deserves. We just can’t let that sophomore slump happen. The good news is that he’s been Benny. He’s been out there working and is very reliable.”
With the graduation of Jojo Kemp and decision by Boom Williams to put his name into the NFL draft, Stoops must find other running backs. The most talked about player is redshirt A.J. Rose.
“He is a guy we have high hopes for. I know he looks the part. He is a big, physical guy out there running around. We need him to show what he can do but we are very confident he’ll be big part of our team,” Stoops said.
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Dominique Hawkins has been playing some of his best basketball at Kentucky in recent games going into the start of postseason play Friday in Nashville.
Kentucky coach John Calipari even suggested after last week's win at Texas A&M that Hawkins might deserve to start.
That would be fine with Hawkins, but winning suits him even more. His girlfriend, Emma Smith, knows what playing at Kentucky has meant to him.
“The hardest thing for him while playing for Kentucky is not disappointing family, friends and the fans. I think all the players would admit this. All eyes are on you when you're on that court and you always want to put your best foot forward and make everyone proud,” Smith said. “However, Dominique has gone above and beyond when it comes to making all of his loved ones proud.”
That has produced a lot of special memories for her and she prides herself on being his No. 1 fan.
“Every game is a great memory. The Louisville game (his junior year) stands out above them all. He had an amazing game, and I am so thankful I was there with my Dad to cheer him on. I'm especially grateful that I went to every game,” she said.
“I didn't realize how much I'm going to miss this environment until just recently. Being in Rupp Arena feels like we're one big family. I have made so many lasting relationships and have met so many amazing people along the way. And I know Dominique feels the same way.
“So I think my favorite memory is all of it — every Big Blue Madness, every scrimmage, every home game, every away game, screaming until my throat was sore with his family and my own, waiting on Dominique in the back because he is always the last one out of the locker room, and the walks back to my car going over the game and how he played. Experiencing this whole journey with Dominique has been the time of my life.”
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Alex Reigelsperger is ranked by ESPN as the nation’s 14th best defensive end in the 2018 recruiting class and one of the top 300 players at any position.
The Ohio junior recently gave his verbal commitment to Kentucky, and was a huge commitment for coach Mark Stoops. However, his best football likely still lies ahead.
“I didn’t really focus on football to be completely honest until after my freshman season,” the 6-5, 235-pound Reigelsperger said. “I played basketball until the end of my eighth grade year and then had a real bad injury. I broke my ankle and was out about nine months. I missed three games my freshman year. I got moved to varsity at the end of the season and the kid ahead of me actually inspired me to focus on football.”
His middle school basketball team was current football teammate L’Christian “Blue” Smith, a four-star receiver in the 2018 recruiting class who is being heavily pursued by Kentucky. He’s a consensus top 100 player nationally.
“I was no Blue in basketball but I was okay,” Reigelsperger said. “I actually have not grown much taller since eighth grade. Me and Blue have both only grown about an inch. In eighth grade, we were 6-4, 6-5. I am not saying we were sweet but we were a force to be reckoned with throwing lobs off the backboard and stuff like that.”
He's already contemplating playing basketball his senior year if all goes well during football season.
Smith recently visited UK with Reigelsperger and many feel he’s also a Kentucky lean and future commit.
“I am not speaking much on that. Just know it is in the works,” Reigelsperger said.
He says being verbally committed to UK leaves him nothing to focus on but school, hitting the weights and winning a state championship next season.
So is his recruitment definitely over?
“I am not fully shutting it down. But I am done,” he said. “If someone like UCLA came in and wanted me to take an official visit, I am taking my family to Cal (California). Three days (of a visit) paid, I would take it,” he said. “But I know where I am at and where I will be in college already.”
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Paul Biancardi, ESPN’s national recruiting director, believes UK signee Nick Richards is not yet a polished offensive player but should still be a significant contributor for Kentucky next season.
“He is a long, athletic and strong center that is a big time finisher and rebounder on both ends of the floor. He runs the floor extremely well,” Biancardi said. “He is a good athlete. He really concentrates on playing post defense. He rebounds the ball off the glass really well. He will block shots.
“He is not great at anything. He’s probably better on defense than offense. He’s just learning to score inside and make moves. He can score in contact. He’s just developing on offense, but defensively he’s pretty stable. He plays with aggressiveness that Cal likes. He has good hands and I really like the way he defends and rebounds.”
Another UK signee, Jared Vanderbilt, is an athletic wing that Biancardi sees being able to do a lot of things — one reason he was recently named to the Nike Hoop Summit team.
“He will make plays with his athleticism. He has great size. He handles (the ball), rebounds and passes. That is where he shines,” Biancardi said about the 6-8 Texas standout. “He scores it on the drive. He gets to the foul line. He will not hurt you from the outside right now.
“He is a tremendous rebounder on both ends of the court. He likes to push it after getting a defensive rebound because he can handle and pass it. He’s a great playmaker in transition. He’s a willing passer and has good court vision. He just brings a lot to the table athletically.”
Kentucky currently has the nation's No. 1 recruiting class with P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo to go with Richards and Vanderbilt. But Calipari is still pursuing 6-11 Mohamed Bamba of New Jersey and 6-8 Kevin Knox of Florida, both consensus top 10 players.
“Bamba and Knox just bring different attributes,” Biancardi said. “There is nobody in the class at 6-8 who can handle and score like Knox. He's a combination of P.J. and Jarred and would add great versatility and a big-time shooter.
“Bamba is a game changer on the defensive end. He struggles to score, but he can shrink the floor. He has a 7-8 wingspan and is a great shot blocker. He needs a lot of individual skill development but he's going to be special.
“I think they are both probably looking to see who leaves (for the NBA at schools recruiting them) and who I am coming in with but Kentucky still seems like a realistic possibility for them both.
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Quote of the week: “What kid would say he is not interested in Kentucky? Find me one and let me know,” ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi on UK’s recruiting success.
Quote of the week 2: “My first game stands out because it went well and I was blessed to come along at the same time Hal Mumme arrived to give the ball to Tim Couch to throw to Craig Yeast. The first game they had three touchdowns in the first quarter and were up 21-0 on Louisville,” UK Radio Network’s Tom Leach on of his special broadcasting memories.
Quote of the Week 3: “Kentucky is the best in the country at dribble penetration with De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe. There is nobody better,” Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy on what impresses him the most about UK.
Mark Stoops likes what he has seen from quarterback Drew Baker as he comes back from offseason back surgery. (Victoria Graff Photo)