UK football spring game provides some answers and questions on defense


Stephen Johnson II talks with a receiver during the first open practice at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. on Saturday, March 26, 2016. Photo by Josh Mott | Staff.

Anthony Crawford

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The football spring game is an event that brings a lot of excitement for UK football fans as they get to see the team in action for the first time. Unfortunately for the fans and coaches, the story told in the first half was one that is all too familiar — the defense not being able to stop a running quarterback.

After both teams went scoreless in the first quarter, the white team composed of mostly backups started to have success led by the rushing attack of running back Sihiem King and JUCO transfer quarterback Stephen Johnson. The two powered a read option offense that gave the first team defense a lot of problems.

In the second quarter, the white team was able to put up back-to-back scoring drives to take the lead from the blue team made up of mostly the starters. The first drive was highlighted by a 29-yard run by Johnson that put the white team in scoring position inside blue’s 10 yard line.

“But Stephen has had a really good spring and just seems like he had a hard time getting started a little bit today,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “But he made some good runs and you could see the threat he has with his legs as well.”

The drive was punched in by King with a five-yard run, but Johnson did most of the legwork getting the team in that position coming up with 46 rushing yards on the drive on six scrambles.

After UK saw it bowl-aspirations ended by the hands of Louisville and mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson, the signs shown from the defense during the spring game in that area have to be a concern for the coaches.

The white team’s other scoring drive of the half was set up by a 43-yard run by King to make it a goal line situation for the backups. After walk-on Ditalian Tobler finished off the drive with a five-yard touchdown run, the white team started to put some pressure on the blue team full of starters.

While the run defense was concerning at times and kept the white team in the game, the pass defense led by the secondary was everything fans and media expected it to be and allowed the blue team to pull away.

Cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity both showed they were worthy of the high praises they had received throughout the spring. The two true sophomores combined to have three pass breakups and were a big part in Johnson going 4-11 with only 36 yards in the first half.

Westry, standing at 6’4”, continues to be a player Stoops can count on to make a big impact on the defensive end. His two pass breakups in the spring game look to just be the start of what he will contribute to the team in the upcoming season.

“From what I can see, again, I have a lot of confidence in him, when I see the ball going down his side, immediately I’m like ‘that’s not going to be complete,’” Stoops said. “When I saw the quarterback challenging him down the field, I thought that was a very low percentage that we would complete that and it was true.”

When the white team’s offense wasn’t having success outside with scrambles and runs, it had it’s hands full trying to contain sophomore defensive end Denzil Ware. Ware was a force on the inside coming away with 15 total tackles and four sacks on the day.

His play on the defensive line and the secondary’s ability to cover the receivers should have fans and coaches hopeful that that defense will be able to hold its own against SEC offenses, that is if they can keep the opposing quarterback in the pocket instead of outside scrambling.