LEXINGTON, Ky -- It was a rare scrimmage for Kentucky football.
Mark Stoops didn't leave the scrimmage -- UK's second of the spring -- thinking one side of the ball had the better of the action and wondering what had gone wrong with the other.
Instead, Stoops came away believing neither the offense nor defense had won the tug-of-war in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
"That's why it's hard for me, because if one side does well I'm disappointed in the other," Stoops said. "But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better."
That kind of give-and-take is exactly what Stoops is looking for. As a result, UK had its best overall day of the spring, representing a vast improvement from last Saturday's scrimmage. Stoops opted to cancel Friday's practice to focus on preparation for Saturday and the Wildcats took advantage.
"That's maybe why I was a little frustrated (after the last scrimmage): looked a little bit sloppy," Stoops said. "But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was even more positive in his evaluation,
"Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere - the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we've executed," Brown said. "What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year."
Naturally, much of that has to do with quarterback play.
Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are splitting time as the battle for the starting position continues with Maxwell Smith recovering from a shoulder injury. Stoops does not yet have a timetable for making a decision, but Brown did say he wants to get it done sooner than a season ago.
The important thing right now is Brown knows UK will be improved at quarterback in 2014, no matter who wins the job.
"The thing I'm pleased about is they're all much, much better," Brown said. "We're better. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."
Barker -- the highly touted midyear enrollee -- is the lone signal caller who was not on campus last year, but there were moments when he could have fooled Brown.
"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have known he was a high school senior," Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."
Barker was hardly the only one of the four to impress. Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made a handful of throws that drew praise from both Stoops and Brown while Whitlow and Phillips each had their moments as UK's offense did not commit a turnover.
"I think all of them stood out," sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said. "That's gonna be the coaches' call. They got a handful, I can tell you that, because to me all of them looked great. All of them was competing, completing passes. Just the whole group of guys looked good today."
It helps that the quarterbacks are surrounded by a group of talented running backs and a receiving corps improving by the day in spite of battling some bumps and bruises.
"The young guys did some good things," Stoops said. "Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn't come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good. I think (Ryan) Timmons. Timmons is always -- he's been solid."
The offense had only to contend with the defense's base packages. Installing wrinkles is for later.
"We weren't trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
As expected, senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith shined. Beyond his two building blocks, Eliot saw one fresh face and two more familiar ones stand out.
"A.J. Stamps, again, did some good things," Eliot said. "I was pleased with some his effort. And Jason Hatcher did some good things. I was pleased with some of the things he did. I saw some good plays by J.D. Harmon just initially. And after we watch the film we'll be able be more detailed on that."
Stamps, a junior-college transfer, appears poised to contribute immediately in the secondary in spending most of his time at safety after playing corner at East Mississippi Community College.
"A.J. Stamps is making a pretty good impact on our defense, giving us a better balanced look," linebacker Khalid Henderson said. "A more versatile safety back there."
Harmon, meanwhile, has added important depth at cornerback after sitting out last season and Hatcher is taking steps forward in his first college spring after playing as a freshman in 2013.
"You know, at any sport, any position, it's hard to come in and play as a freshman," Eliot said. "And so now we're seeing a big jump in Jason because he's a sophomore and I'm really liking the progress that he's making. He's grown up, not only on the football field, but in any natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore he's done that as well."
With those individual performances and the way UK continues to come together as a team in mind, Stoops has plenty of reason for optimism.
"We feel better," Stoops said. "At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we're running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you're getting ones, twos and threes. Already in the spring, you're already a little bit thin if you don't have your whole group here. So it's sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We're definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We're getting there, getting better."