What we learned about Devin Leary, Liam Coen’s offense at Kentucky football open practice
It would be foolish to make many conclusions about one spring practice for a college football season still six months away, but a Kentucky practice opened to reporters Tuesday morning at least offered a glimpse at where things currently stand for the Wildcats.
It must be noted that this was just the fourth spring practice, and the first after a one-week hiatus for spring break. It was the team’s third spring practice in pads. Several projected key contributors in the fall remain out as they recover from offseason surgeries.
With those caveats in mind, here is a look at what we learned from the first open practice of spring:
Devin Leary looks the part
There were no signs of any physical problems with Kentucky’s new quarterback despite him missing the second half of the 2022 season at North Carolina State with a torn pectoral muscle. He took all the first-team reps Tuesday and showed off his impressive accuracy on several throws into tight coverage.
The one obvious mistake from Leary on the day came when he threw an interception to cornerback Maxwell Hairston on a play-action pass. According to UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen, that was a sign of the work Leary still needs to adjust to playing under center more often than he did at N.C. State.
“He turned his back to the defense from underneath the center and he just lost the corner,” Coen said. “That’s going to happen when you just don’t have vision for the whole time.”
There was one fun interaction between Leary and Coen that offered a glimpse of UK’s new (and old) offensive coordinator’s coaching style.
Early in the 11-on-11 period, Leary completed a checkdown to Barion Brown that appeared to be a positive play but was met with a loud expletive from Coen. Coen quickly apologized to players and the reporters watching from the sideline for his outburst. Later, he explained the frustration was with himself, not Leary.
“We had a touchdown on a throwback to Dane (Key),” Coen said. “I (told Leary), ‘Hey man, if we get a little pressure, just whip it out to Barion and just move on and play the next play.’ He does what I tell him to do, and we actually picked up the protection great and it would have been a touchdown.
“So, that’s me overcoaching him. I should just let him play because he really does a nice job of kind of playing within the rhythm and timing of the play.”
Center is a question mark
Sophomore Jager Burton, who started at left guard for Kentucky a year ago, served as the first-team center Tuesday with Eli Cox, who started at center in 2022, moving back to right guard, where he was a midseason All-American in 2020.
Coen is not ready to anoint Burton as the Wildcats’ starting center yet though, and there were multiple high snaps during the open practice.
“He’s doing some good things,” Coen said of Burton. “It’s really hard to just kind of jump in and play center. You literally touch the football every play as an offensive lineman, and that’s not easy to do when you’ve never touched the ball. So, just snapping, the cadence, timing it up and then having to go block and work your responsibilities, that’s not easy to do.
“We’re just trying to get some more bodies that can truly snap and just evaluate different positions. That’s not set in stone for right now. It’s just a matter of how can we continue to develop depth at the center position while also knowing Eli and Jager can both play guard as well?”
The good news for Burton is when he plays center between Cox and super senior left guard Kenneth Horsey there should be plenty of experience around him to help with the communication responsibilities usually given the center. There is also plenty of time for him to perfect his snapping, something Burton told reporters he had only done for a handful of plays at various high school camps before.
The left side of the offensive line appears locked in with Marques Cox at left tackle and Horsey at left guard. Burton and Cox will start in some combination at center and right guard.
Right tackle remains open for competition though. Incumbent Jeremy Flax took most of the first-team snaps Tuesday, but Deondre Buford and David Wohlabaugh should be factors in the competition as well. It would be little surprise to see Kentucky look for another right tackle candidate when the transfer portal reopens in May.
“No upper hand right now,” Coen said of right tackle. “Straight competition. Just trying to find out who’s going to be the guy. Obviously, there’s a few guys who are competing for that job right now. They’re doing a good job competing, but it’s so early. Our second day of pads, really hard to truly evaluate that position right now. We’ll have a bunch of guys doing that competition, which will help out.”
A noticeable change with special teams
The season will tell us if head coach Mark Stoops’ decision to hire Jay Boulware as his new special teams coordinator pays off with better results in games, but for at least one practice the renewed emphasis on special teams was clear.
There were multiple special teams drills early in the practice focusing on the punt coverage and return teams. Boulware was a constant presence throughout, barking orders to players and making corrections. His energy was infectious.
“I can just feel it, how he’s come in,” star returner Barion Brown said. “The energy in meetings as well. Knowing we have somebody that’s really big on special teams, it’s good. We have offense, defense ready, but special teams win games. Just having a coach that’s got the energy is making us do this, do that, it’s wonderful.”
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