As you loyal readers know, each week this is a piece to give you a scouting reporting on UK’s upcoming opponent. We give you some facts you need to know about the opposing team including their strengths and weaknesses.
As we enter the second weekend in October, Kentucky has landed on its bye week so there is no opponent to do research on. However, this would be a very good time to take a look at Kentucky and find out, exactly, what kind of football team they are halfway through the season.
You all have watched the games and seen the wins, but here are some specific places that UK does well, must improve, and keep up as the Wildcats get into the meat of their schedule.
Coming into the season, Kentucky returned a thousand yard back and an offensive line that had seven players that received significant snaps. With quarterback Stephen Johnson adding a zone read element, it was thought that this rushing attack was going to continue being a top 20 unit.
That has certainly not been the case.
Benny Snell is only averaging 4.2 yards per carry after a rookie season that saw him post 5.9 yards per attempt. The Ohio native has needed 21 carries per game to stay on pace for another thousand yard season. Surprisingly, he is the bright of the rushing attack spot as he’s ran for over 100 yards in both of Kentucky’s conference victories. In his career, Kentucky is 6-1 when the tailback goes for triple-digits.
FInding a sidekick to Snell has been a real struggle for Eddie Gran’s offense to begin the season. Freshmen Bryant Koback and A.J. Rose have yet to play multiple snaps, let alone get touches to make something happen. Sihiem King has been effective on outside runs but is getting nothing in UK’s staple inside runs. Playing only two running backs limits your options, but Stephen Johnson has been solid when deciding to run.
Moving forward, it’s highly unlikely the staff pulls Koback’s redshirt and Rose has not shown anything to believe he’s going to make an impact. The wildcat formation has been largely ineffective, but the Wildcats may need to find Lynn Bowden touches in the running game.
Last year, Kentucky was one of the worst teams in the FBS as they finished 2016 with a minus-seven turnover margin. The Cats were able to force 21 takeaways, but the offense gave it away on 28 occasions.
This season, the defense is ahead of schedule as the Wildcats have come up with 13 takeaways (seven fumble recoveries, six interceptions). But the story has been the offense and their ball security. Stephen Johnson has only thrown two interceptions and UK has only lost three fumbles. The ball security issues were a focal point of the offseason and this has been one of the biggest strengths of the team to start the year. This has been a key ingredient into Kentucky’s winning formula. For this team to accomplish their first winning season in the SEC since 1976, they’ll need to have somewhere around a plus-12 turnover margin.
Efficient Passing Game
The best thing UK did in the passing department was hitting on big plays off of play-action. Jeff Badet emerged as one of the best deep threats in the country as Johnson burned secondaries week after week on deep posts. However, the intermediate throws were a headache.
Johnson had some bad mechanics and consistently missed on short passes over the middle. That has not been the case this fall as tight end C.J. Conrad has done plenty of damage across the middle. Kentucky’s tight ends have produced four touchdown receptions after only having four total in 2017.
Garrett Johnson has been Johnson’s favorite target by far, but Tavin Richardson and Kayuane Ross have emerged as solid intermediate targets. Both have good size and the duo has combined to contribute 20 receptions as each is averaging over nine yards per catch. Blake Bone has provided the pass game some big plays while Charles Walker has been dependable out of the slot.
The deep shots have not come but true freshman Isaiah Epps has been very close to big plays on multiple occasion. Lynn Bowden was excellent in the Mizzou win and he should have a big impact on this passing game in the second half of the year. You could see this group making a big jump the next six weeks.
Leaky Pass Defense
Entering 2017, Kentucky was returning three multi-year starters in the secondary to go along with heavily sought after recruits Jordan Griffin, Lonnie Johnson, and Darius West. With Mark Stoops having an experienced and talented unit for the first time since taking over in Lexington, some believed this could be the best secondary in the SEC outside of Tuscaloosa.
So far, Kentucky has been giving up large chunks through the air as each opponent has at least gained 200 yards and two opponents have foes the 300 yard mark. Four opponents have averaged at least 7.7 yards per attempt and that’s not a great look. In the past three games, Kentucky has been giving up big plays in the passing game and that is an issue that must be fixed.
Darius West has struggled a bit in pass coverage as he bit on a play fake against South Carolina’s opening bomb and was the likely responsible party for two of Mizzou’s long touchdown passes. If he can get some things ironed out, this group should be just fine. With a concerted effort to stop the run, the passing yards are going to come. It’s essential that Kentucky tightens up on the vertical shots down the field.
Super Special Teams
After being pretty horrible in special teams last season, the hire of Dean Hood is paying huge dividends as the specialists have been absolutely vital for Kentucky’s success . Kentucky appears to be improved in every phase and the advanced metric system S&P+ currently has UK ranked as the 21st best unit in the country.
Austin MacGinnis is the best kicker in program history and the senior has knocked in 13 of 18 field goals and is perfect on extra points. MacGinnis also has 43.2% of his kickoffs going into the endzone for touchbacks. Grad transfer Matthew Panton may be the best newcomer on the squad as the Australian is averaging 42.5 yards per attempt and has had nine punts downed inside the 20. The kick coverage, meanwhile, has been outstanding led by senior walk-on Charles Moushey.
The Wildcats have yet to record a return touchdown, but the Cats have been excellent when given opportunities. Kentucky is in the top 10 in both kick and punt return success rate and that is a big reason why they are winning the hidden yardage battle. Charles Walker is averaging 21.5 yards per punt return while Lynn Bowden and Sihiem King are both averaging at least 24 yards per kick return. Eventually, one of these returns will go for six.
Kentucky has been outgained in each game against Power Five competition but that hasn’t mattered yet since they are dominating the kicking game. If this excellent play continues, it gives Kentucky a significant edge over its competition.
Lack of Havoc
Entering the season, Kentucky was brutal against the run in 2016 and it was essential for this to stiffen up. It was thought for this to happen, Kentucky would need to get much better in producing negative plays.
Through six games, Kentucky has been much improved against the run but it’s not because of tackles for loss. On the year, Kentucky has 27 tackles for loss. Last year’s total finished at 69. The Wildcats are way behind.
If you take out Josh Allen, UK would only have 18.5 tackles for loss. Allen has been unbelievable but most of his big plays occur when rushing the passer. Denzil Ware comes in at second with 4.5 stops for a loss but no one else on the team has more than two. The three down defensive linemen have only gotten 4.5 stops for loss and that is just not going to cut it. Adrian Middleton leads the group with two tackles for loss a year after recording 5.5 as a sophomore. As the competition stiffens, UK is going to need their front to step up the production.
Getting Jordan Jones back in the lineup should help with this number, but UK is going to need to force more negative plays to help them against the high powered offenses they are going to face moving forward. If you’re able to produce these situations, it’s only going to make a really good pass rush that much better.
Offensive Line Consistency
A big reason the offensive line has struggled is because of all the mixing John Schlarman’s unit has had to do up front. UK has played three different centers, and is still searching for the right rotation off the bench.
After a slow start, it appears UK has its center of the future in Drake Jackson. Bunchy Stallings should be this team’s right guard for the next two seasons. Kyle Meadows and Landon Young have both been very good at tackle. Reserve guards Luke Fortner and Mason Wolfe have both played well in spots and they should get plenty of snaps when they backup Stallings and Logan Stenberg.
The wildcard moving forward will be Nick Haynes. The senior has dealt with a diabetes situation that has caused him to shred a ton of weight. The Florida native was once a legit NFL prospect and now we may have reached the point where he will be UK’s first offensive lineman off the bench.
However, this can be a good thing for UK. Haynes will be able to play any of the three interior spots at any time and will be a very valuable piece for Schlarman to have at his disposal. UK could even use him as a blocking tight end in certain spots to help UK become more efficient in short yardage situations.
If this group can remain healthy moving forward, they could be due for a monster ending to the season.