Stoops discusses Kentucky freshmen preparing for first career games
The Kentucky Wildcats are still firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode, but the progress Mark Stoops and company have made since his arrival in December 2012 may begin paying dividends this season.
On Monday, Stoops released his depth chart for Kentucky’s season opener Saturday against UT Martin, including seven redshirt freshmen and eight true freshmen on his two-deep roster. That’s 15 players from Stoops first two recruiting classes (both of which ranked in the top-fourth in the nation, according to 247 Sports) who could make their collegiate debuts for the Wildcats this weekend.
Even Stoops doesn’t know what to expect from his bevvy of newcomers.
“That’s part of the unknown … Certainly with young guys, some guys are going to go out there for the first time and they’re going to exceed our expectations, then some guys will probably have some rough spots here and there, have some mental mistakes, physical mistakes, things like that,” Stoops said in Monday’s press conference. “That’s why you have to get out there and play.”
Kentucky will not hold back from giving its freshmen their opportunities to learn on the field this season.
The Cats could use up to eight different receivers Saturday in their Air Raid attack, four of which are true freshmen – Dorrian Baker, Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson and T.V. Williams. All four receivers were highly regarded throughout their prep careers, but all four were also playing on Friday nights as recently as last season.
“We do feel good about the wide receiver position,” Stoops said. “… Maybe not as experienced as you’d like to be still at certain spots there, but talent-wise we’re getting to the point where those are the guys we’re looking for.
The right side of UK’s offensive line will also make its collegiate debut against the Skyhawks, as redshirt freshmen Ramsey Meyers (right guard) and Kyle Meadows (tackle) both earned the starting nods on the depth chart. It is likely, however, that Meadows will move back to second string following Saturday’s game when senior Darrian Miller’s suspension is up. He would be joined on the second team by fellow redshirt freshmen Nick Haynes and Cole Mosier, who Stoops hinted could also see time in Saturday’s opener.
Redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles gained valuable experience as a true freshman in 2012, but has not played in a live game for nearly two seasons. While he shakes off the rust against UT Martin, his backups – redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker – will both be waiting to make their collegiate debuts as well.
Stoops’ defense is a much more experienced group with just three freshmen on the two-deep. One of those freshmen, defensive tackle Matt Elam, is sure to see time in the trenches despite being listed with the second team on the depth chart. The 375-pound tackle was a highly touted recruit from the state of Kentucky who fans have been anxiously waiting to see in UK’s Blue and White.
Redshirt freshman Reggie Meant could also rotate onto the field for a few plays as a reserve defensive end, while Kendall Randolph could see some time as an extra defensive back, although Kentucky’s secondary is perhaps its most experienced unit in terms of live game experience.
Stanley “Boom” Williams, another promising freshman from Stoops’ 2014 recruiting class, did not make the two-deep at his natural tailback position, but was listed as the team’s primary kickoff returner. If Williams is able to shine on special teams during his rookie season, he could earn himself an increased role by the mid-season.
Lost among all the sensational freshmen who could make their debuts Saturday is redshirt freshman place kicker Austin MacGinnis, who was listed alone on the team’s depth chart.
The Cats’ head coach said getting acclimated to the speed of a live game is the greatest challenge his freshmen will face on Saturday and throughout the season, adding he has tried to simulate high-pressure, live game situations to prepare his freshmen for Saturday’s action.
However, the head coach also admitted there is no simulation truly capable of preparing a freshman to play in front of 60,000 fans in person and millions more watching on television.
“That’s why you have to get out there and play,” Stoops said. “There’s no substitution for experience. You got to get them out there, get them on the field, and get them playing. We tried to put them in as many game‑like situations as we could. We try to prepare them the best we can with all different situations. … We’ll see how they go play.”