Monday, February 5, 2024

UK recruit excited about next season's line

Zach Yenser was excited about the potential for UK’s offensive line next season and is “extremely disappointed” he won’t get to coach that unit after being fired despite signing a contract extension in December.

“We battled for two years to get to this point. We have four guys back. We have been building depth with two high school recruiting classes,” Yenser said. “Both Marques (Cox) and Eli (Cox) coming back is huge so that we did not have to rely on young guys and could play other guys so they are ready when their turn comes.”

Yenser said transfers Jalen Farmer of Florida and Gerald Mincey of Tennessee added needed daily competition and depth.

“Farmer brings some competition to the middle and Mincey will provide great competition at tackle that is great to have,” Yenser said. “I think we were going to be as close to the 2021 offensive line and felt like we were going to have that kind of front again.

“I just keep telling myself I left it (the offensive line) better than I found it and I know (former UK offensive line coach John) Schlarman would be happy with what I did.”

Yenser said he told 2024 offensive line signees Hayes Johnson, Marc Nave and Aba Selm they were at

Kentucky for a reason.

“I told them it was not just me that wanted them here but other people (coaches) in the building did too,” Yenser said.

He felt 2023 signees Koby Keenum, Austin Ramsey and Malachi Wood all made “huge strides” last season.

“They were all kind of beat up when they heard the news (about his firing). Hayes and Abe just got here a few weeks ago but they will all be fine,” Yenser said. “I told them they were in a great spot and that they came here for more than me. They came to be part of the Big Blue Wall and it will all work out.”

Yenser said UK coach Mark Stoops told him he was leaving the offensive line room better than it was when he arrived from the San Francisco 49ers after the 2021 season.

“He kept telling me I was a NFL guy but I kept telling him I wanted to be here,” Yenser said. “I really don’t know what I will do now. My first initial thought is to get back in the NFL and continue on the path I was before I came to Kentucky. I did enjoy being back in college and the relationships I built but it is crazy with the transfer portal and NIL. It’s nuts with NIL and often with recruits it’s more ‘what do I get for coming’ rather than come prove yourself.

“Making sure I do what is best for my boys is a big priority. My oldest understands some of this and the first thing he said was, ‘Are we going back to the NFL?’ I told them I will get to be home and be dad more than I usually can and let’s just take advantage of that and see where it takes us.”

Yenser said before offensive coordinator Liam Coen decided to leave Kentucky that he was confident Kentucky would continue to be successful.

“Kentucky has a great vision for how they are doing it,” Yenser said. “Coach does phenomenal job with it. The whole building does and they do a good job taking a lot off position coaches so you can do your job.”

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Stacey and Jeff Sheppard knew watching their son, Reed, play at Kentucky this season would be a surreal experience at times for the two former UK stars. They have had as much fun as UK fans watching this season.

The Sheppards were confident Reed could play at Kentucky. He finished his high school career at North Laurel with 3,727 points (third best in state history) along with 1,214 assists (second best in state history). He also 1,050 rebounds and a state-record 653 steals. He was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year in 2023 as well as a McDonald’s All-American.

However, even the two former UK stars never expected to have their son’s name showing up on NBA mock draft projections so early in his career like what has happened. He has even been projected as a lottery pick by several NBA draft analysts.

“It is crazy. A lot of things are happening very fast,” Stacey said. “We are not having any conversations with Reed. We want him to focus on this year and his team and what to do to prepare for every game. There is lots of stuff to deal with when the time comes. If that happens, Jeff and I will try to vet everything and let Reed make his own decisions. But that really is not something we are even thinking about.”

Yahoo Sports draft analyst Krysten Peek says NBA personnel continue to speak highly about Sheppard and his draft value.

“They know Reed not only is a high level shooter but has a great basketball IQ, is a great shooter and is not afraid to take big shots,” Peek said. “I wasn't sure Reed's game would transition to college so well this quickly but I always knew he would buy into what the coaches wanted and would be a really good player.”

Stacey Sheppard still remembers dropping Reed off at UK in May to start college and just wanting him to come home to see her.

“Whatever happens will happen and we definitely don’t know what that could be,” Stacey said. “I am sure after the season is over we will have some conversations with Reed and his coaches. But we just want to enjoy these moments with Reed and allow him to be a freshman.

“This team is great and they have fun playing together. We know Kentucky fans are going to cheer for their own because they are very loyal. But when you put guys around him who play the right way, what is not to love about this team and Reed being part of it is just very special to us.”

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Two-time All-American shortstop Erin Coffel has already been a terror for opposing teams and could be set to put up historic numbers for UK softball this season.

In 169 career games, she has 55 home runs, 179 RBI’s, 184 hits, 151 runs scored, 29 doubles, 108 walks and a slugging percentage off .762 going into her senior season.

Her slugging percentage currently is No. 1 on UK’s all-time list and way above the .678 mark of No. 2 Abby Cheek. Her 55 homers are only six behind Cheek, the all-time leader, and she’s also only 24 RBI’s from moving past Cheek into the No. 1 spot on that list. 

“I actually think she is a lot better than she was at the end of last year,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “She can hit the ball in more zones. She is doing a great job barreling up on the ball and has tightened up holes in her swing.”

Coffel walked 64 times last season, the top mark in the nation, when she hit a career-high .440 with a slugging percentage of .976 and scored 60 runs.

“It comes down to who we have behind her (in the batting order) to protect her,” Lawson said. “I think our lineup will be a lot better despite losing a generational talent like (Kayla) Kowalik who was so great in the leadoff spot. 

“But we have got to have somebody who if teams walk Erin has the ability to make you pay. She walked a lot last year because she is so good but it was also telling that teams were not scared of who was hitting behind her.”

Lawson knows this is the time for Coffel to show she’s still got more left in her game to showcase.

“Her shortstop play is outstanding. The game looks so slow to her now. She just looks great. She’s always been good but this year she’s looking even better,” Lawson said. “Erin to me has to be noticed as one of the very best players in the country.”

* * *

Gerald Mincey was a significant transfer portal addition for Kentucky when he came from Tennessee because he immediately bolstered UK’s offensive line depth even if he does not end up being the starter at right tackle.

The 6-3, 337-pound Mincey picked UK over Ole Miss after he spent two years at Florida and then the last two at Tennessee. He had actually verbally committed to UK in high school before flipping to home-state Florida.

Tennessee fans gave Mincey a hard time on social media when he picked UK and he admitted during his first media interview at UK that he was a “troll” by responding to those fans. He had no regrets about openly doing that.

“If I'm gonna say something, I'm gonna use my main account. And obviously that's what I've been doing. That's a little fire to the fuel, man. Just getting to work and knowing I have a target on my back makes me work harder. I have to talk the talk and walk the walk,” he said.

He posted on social media that the “negative comments hurts” because he played the 2023 season with a torn MCL but still helped Tennessee win a bowl game. He started seven games in 2023 and played in all 13 games. He was on the field for almost 600 snaps despite his knee injury and in two seasons started 14 games at Tennessee.

Mincey said he picked Kentucky in part because of his contact with then UK offensive line coach John Schlarman back in 2018 before his passing and former UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran also had a “bond” with him.

“He (Gran) was the first one to reach out when I got in the portal. Coach Gran was the first to offer from an SEC school. Now I have a chance to be a part of the Big Blue Wall and I'm excited,”  Mincey said. “I think it was time for a change. I appreciate what Tennessee allowed me to do and the two years that I did it."

However, Kentucky fans have to love his feisty attitude.

"I think I owe it to all the Kentucky fans to handle business on Nov. 2 (when UK plays at Tennessee),” he said. "So I'm excited for that."

Mark Stoops is 2-9 against Tennessee and has lost 36 of the last 39 games against Tennessee. Mincey admits UK has to do  more to make it a true rivalry.

“I love the underdog (role). So when we go there Nov. 2 to Neyland (Stadium) and we bust them in the mouth, we can put the standard back over here,” Mincey said.  “I love being the underdog. I don’t look at it as a rival. I just look at it as another game to go out and get my job done.”

* * *

Former LSU coach Dale Brown first met John Calipari when he was coaching at Mass and asked if he could come watch LSU practice when he brought his team to Louisiana to play.

“I was friends with him before he got to Kentucky. I hit it off immediately with him the first time I met him,” said Brown. “I also really think he’s in the game because he loves the game and wants to help young people.”

Brown, 88, took LSU to the Final Four in 1981 and 1986 and had a 448-301 record, including 18-13 in NCAA Tournament play, during his 25 years at LSU from 1972-1997.

“I think he conducts himself as a winner. He is a nice man and he is the best recruiter in the country,” Brown said. “He doesn’t use his kids. Sometimes you can have too much talent but I don’t think that is the case this year. However, I still think they will be a big danger for everybody in the tournament even though they are having a little trouble right now.”

Brown understands Kentucky fans have been disappointed with UK’s recent play.

“Kentucky, I thought, had the most informed fans of any team in the country. The knowledge of the game the Kentucky fans had was unmatched by any other fans,” Brown said. “The fans are unbelievable but they also think they are supposed to win every game and that’s what keeps the program special.”

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Quote of the Week: “We all want to win and compete and get after it, but I do think in the SEC coaches meetings and things like that, everything he talks about is always for the betterment of the profession. I think he’s super creative, his ideas about trying to create some type of summer league like the NBA has. To do that in August? Super creative. And his winning goes without saying,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman on UK coach John Calipari.

Quote of the Week 2: “He has just grown. You know who our best perimeter defender is? He’s it. Las year I just said who is left, you got him. Just stay in front of him the best you can. He has gotten physical. He plays hard. He is just so much better. I am proud of him,” Kentucky coach John Calipari on fifth-year guard Antonio Reeves.

Quote of the Week 3: “BBN Nation! To all of you who's wondering, I'm a Wildcat for life. Now y'all took the time to take me in and I love this program?” receiver Raymond Cottrell, a Texas A&M transfer, on social media after offensive coordinator Liam Coen headed to the NFL.