By Keith Taylor
Special to NKyTribune
The backups shined and were the stars in Kentucky’s spring-ending Blue-White scrimmage Friday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
Reserve running back Sihiem King rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns to lead the blue team to a 31-14 victory over the white squad. Backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak, a redshirt freshman who played for both teams, threw for 174 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for another.
The blue team was comprised of Kentucky’s projected starters on both sides of the ball going into fall workouts. The white consisted mostly of the team’s backup players in a scrimmage that concluded 15 practice sessions this spring.
“It was a good spring and a good spring game, mainly because we stayed healthy,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “What I liked the entire spring was we were very physical and we fundamentally needed to get better (and) at certain positions, we made giant strides. We were very basic on both sides of the ball, but it was relatively clean football. We were physical, but kept guys healthy. We got a lot of work in this spring.”
Kentucky starting quarterback Stephen Johnson completed six of his first eight passes for 91 yards, but was 2-for-10 with an interception before leaving near the end of the third quarter. Johnson completed 8-of-18 passes for 106 yards in the first half, but was sacked three times by Kentucky’s backup defense.
Although Johnson is the team’s starter going into the summer break, Hoak made a solid showing, especially in the first half. Hoak threw for 92 yards and directed two scores, a 10-yard pass to Kayaune Ross and a 7-yard strike to Clevan Thomas in the opening half for the white unit.
Hoak played mostly for the white team, but suited up for the blue squad in the fourth quarter under a running clock. Hoak threw a 21-yard strike to Blake Bone to set up a 26-yard touchdown run by Sihiem King in the final quarter. He also completed a 48-yard strike to Ross, setting up his own 5-yard score in the final minute.
Junior signal caller Drew Barker, who started the first three games last season, didn’t participate in the spring-ending scrimmage after undergoing back surgery last November. Barker took part in spring workouts and is expected to compete Johnson and Hoak for the starting job next fall. Although competing behind Johnson and Barker for the starting slot, Hoak doesn’t mind standing in the shadows.
“You just have to go out there, compete and get better,” Hoak said. “I looked forward to coming out there with everyone and competing. I had fun out there.”
Stoops was pleased with Hoak’s ability to compete in an “effort-less” fashion under pressure and said the performance emulated his performances during the past five weeks.
“He has been very poised,” Stoops said. “I like the way he handles himself out there and he throws a very catchable football. He’s very accurate and the more experience he gets, the better he looks.”
Benny Snell, the team’s featured running back, finished with 22 yards rushing, but backup King ran for 107 yards on 19 carries. King led the blue team with 41 yards in the first half and crossed the goal-line with a 1-yard run out of the “Wildcat” formation. Snell caught three passes for 20 yards, including a 21-yard catch from Johnson in the opening half.
Redshirt freshman Asim Rose ripped off the longest run of the night, a 27-yard gain against Kentucky’s first-team defense in the opening half. Rose finished with 33 yards rushing to pace the white squad.
Jordan Jones, one of Kentucky’s top defensive players going into next season, was suspended for violating team rules and didn’t compete in the scrimmage.
Kentucky’s top priority was avoiding injuries and the Wildcats came through the scrimmage unscathed for the most part. King was shaken up following a carry in the third quarter but later returned.
Stoops likes the direction his team is going coming off a 7-6 campaign and the team’s first bowl appearance in six seasons.
“I like this team and there’s certainly fewer question marks coming out of spring (practice) than in year’s past,” he said. “I feel like there is a lot to build on.”
Season opener: Kentucky at Southern Miss, 4 p.m., Sept. 2. TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.
Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter