Cats being cautious as COVID concerns across NCAAF amplify


Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Clevan Thomas Jr. (18) and Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Josh Ali (6) celebrates after a UK touchdown during the University of Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt University football game on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. UK won 38-14.Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Eric Decker

If the SEC is to play the entirety of the 2020 football season, limiting COVID exposure while traveling from city to city has to be a priority. While Kentucky has been fairly good in comparison to other states, the Cats will play in a few that – whether they deserved it or not – have been far from lauded for their handling of the pandemic.

In fact, there was a big wave in the SEC today, with Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt announcing the Vols had to cancel a scrimmage due to 44 players being out, the vast majority of which were missing because of COVID precautions.

Mark Stoops has maintained confidence throughout camp about being able to complete the season. Those travel concerns have obviously come across not only his mind, but the entire program’s as it tries to keep players safe and healthy.

“We’re looking at all those things. Bringing our own people, bringing our own busses,” Stoops said. “Meals are going to be different… we haven’t had a team meal all through camp. We’re not able to get in there as a group so we’ll continue to be as effective as we possibly can and as safe as we possibly can.”

Stoops has repeatedly mentioned the impact a lack of full team meetings and other team-bonding exercises can have on the team as it prepares for the season.

“I can’t get the whole team in a meeting room,” Stoops said. “We do Zoom and they’re in breakout rooms so their coaches are in there, and there’s some communication that way, but it’s very difficult for me not to be able to spend that time I normally would in a team meeting.”

The ramifications of not having the same opportunity to build full team camaraderie as you would in prior years is something that will effect locker rooms across the country.

“Right now, not being able to do some of the things we normally do with the continuity and the team building and the relationships with our players, there has to be some awareness to that,” Stoops said. “I brought attention to the leaders and to the team, to make a conscious effort to extend themselves to teammates and people they wouldn’t normally.”

The absence of the in-person meetings could particularly have a critical impact on a receiver group looking to reorient its focus after shifting it completely over the last half of 2019. Returning players like Josh Ali and Clevan Thomas Jr. made a number of plays in the passing game last season, and will look to with more frequency this year.

Thomas, specifically, took last season as a learning experience, believing that the switch to a run-heavy offense can benefit the Cats in late-game situations where they’re ahead.

“Going into games where the defense knows there’s not going to be a lot of passing… our mindsets were ‘we got to block’,” Thomas said. “We really dialed in on lifting the weights and trying to get every inch we could get as far as our angles and sizing up… we had to get our mindsets right.”

Thomas doesn’t expect Kentucky to be grinding out drives nearly as often in 2020. That belief stems from the explosive plays he has seen from the offense during camp, some of which have come from wide receiver Michael Drennen. The four-star prospect out of Dublin, Ohio has impressed during his first camp with the Cats. Ranked as high as the No. 3 overall recruit out of the Buckeye state by some recruiting metrics, Drennen could carve out a role in this offense sooner than later if he keeps up his quality play.

“Coming in as a freshman there’s a lot on your plate… [but] he’s adapting well, he’s getting the playbook, he’s getting very few missed assignments,” Thomas said about the young wideout. “He’s making plays when his number is called… he’s came a long way and I’m proud of him.”