Kentucky football hosts open practice in place of annual spring game



Kentucky Wildcats defensive back Maxwell Hairston (31) guards wide receiver Dekel Crowdus (3) during the Kentucky Football Spring Practice on Saturday, April 1, 2023, at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff

Parker Scott, Reporter

Kentucky football held a spring practice that was open to fans and the media on Saturday, with the practice partially serving as a substitute for the Blue-White Game, which will not take place before the season due to turf replacements on Kroger Field.

Many returning starters showcased improvements they had made so far in the offseason, but many non-starters, new freshmen and incoming transfers stood out as well.

One player that caught the eyes of many in attendance was sophomore defensive back Maxwell Hairston, who was playing notably well during first-team defensive reps.

“Maxwell has got some lamp,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “He could really run and he’s getting better. He’s getting more confident out there. So, it’s been a pleasant surprise so far.”

Hairston’s teammates also took notice of his growth, with starting defensive back Jordan Lovett taking time to commend his performance.

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver Anthony Brown (5) gets set in motion during the Kentucky Football Spring Practice on Saturday, April 1, 2023, at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff (Travis_Fannon)

“He’s been really good communicating and stuff,” Lovett said. “As corners, you’ve got to put your face on the football sometimes and I feel like he did that today.”

Sophomore wide receiver Dane Key had plenty of praise for the secondary and how the other receivers have worked along with them, reiterating that “iron sharpens iron.”

“They’re matching our intensity every day,” Key said. “They’re coming out with juice, so it just forces us to come out with juice, and when we bring juice, it forces them to come out with juice.”

Another big name in the spotlight was quarterback Devin Leary, a senior transfer from NC State, who is expected to be under center for the Wildcats this season.

Many team members, mostly wide receivers like Key, have had a great and easy time building chemistry with him.

“Me and Devin have been working on that for a while where it’s finally starting to come, and as we keep doing it, it just keeps getting better and better,” Key said of a highlight catch he had made in practice.

Leary took the majority of quarterback reps on Saturday while sophomore Kaiya Sheron, who started one game last season while Will Levis was injured, played a great number of snaps as well. 

“He just wants to start building that bond with everybody,” Key said. “I asked him the other day because it took me a while to learn everybody’s name on the team, but Devin’s got it down. You can see what he’s trying to do with this team.”

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Devin Leary (13) throws the ball during the Kentucky Football Spring Practice on Saturday, April 1, 2023, at the Joe Craft Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff (Travis_Fannon)

Kentucky’s offensive line has also seen some changes during the offseason, mainly through the transfer portal, leaving fans hopeful that the “Big Blue Wall” will work to improve from a below-average year.

“As a unit, I feel like compared to last spring, we’re definitely further ahead than we were last year, but we’ve still got a lot of ways to go,” senior offensive tackle Jeremy Flax said. “Right now, for us, it’s more so communication, and just finishing plays off, really.”

In the scrimmage portion of the practice both the offense and defense had strong plays, but the defense was what stood out most, especially to the team.

“Defensively, we did some really good things as usual,” Stoops said. “You can tell we’re pretty stout up front.”

Even with the departures of many key defensive leaders and playmakers, including Carrington Valentine, Keidron Smith and DeAndre Square, the defense remains hopeful to remain one of the best in the nation.

“We lost a lot of leaders last year, and so the motto coming into this year was work as a team,” Lovett said. “You work as a team, and everything will come together.”

Although most of the team is healthy, many players sat out of the practice, including sophomore wide receiver Barion Brown, but Stoops clarified that there is nothing more than “a few nagging injuries.”

Overall, the team was excited to be able to perform in front of fans in an environment that is closer to that of a game.

“It was good to hear those fans after a catch,” Key said. “It just felt like football is starting to come back around.”

Coach Stoops was excited for his players to get the opportunity to showcase their offseason progress as well.

“Anytime you’re in a competitive environment and you’ve got the media out there with your cameras, they want to make plays,” Stoops said.

Kentucky will open the 2023 football season against Ball State on Saturday, Sep. 2, at Kroger Field.