So being as this is Kentucky’s first bi-week I thought it might be a good time to talk about my alma mater’s shiny new football team and their progress thus far.
The beginning of the Mark Stoops era in Kentucky has really been blissful from day one. Stoops came to Kentucky with an elite coaching pedigree (see: Stoops, Bob) and brought an exceptional staff with him which included Ohio recruiting savant Vince Marrow and the return of the prodigal son Neal Brown to bring the Air Raid Sirens back to the Bluegrass where they belong (R.I.P. Hal Mumme and Mike Leach).
(Believe it or not some degree of this spread offense stuff that took off so well in the state of Texas and the Big 12 started at Kentucky)
Moreover, that stellar staff brought in an equally shocking recruiting class including 4 star JUCO DE transfer Za’Darius Smith (who is worth a roster spot on any NFL team for his name alone) along with a torrent of other highly talented and highly rated players that would normally be miles out of Kentucky’s league.
(Hello class my name is professor Za’Darius and today we’ll be elucidating the finer points of fuckin’ bitches up on turf. Questions? Oh, yes its spelled Z-A-apostrophe-D…)
The point being, there was much cause for optimism this season. However, at the end of the day, Stoops and his staff were trying to turn around a 2-10 team which had really gone fallow during the Joker Phillips era. Fundamentals, let alone complex schemes, were apparently not coached meaning that however much talent Stoops had brought in or was left in the cupboards, a lot of coaching up would be necessary. We all, as Kentucky fans, knew this, but I don’t think it fully set in until the Western Kentucky game. UK got flat beaten by a second rate in state school, and to make matters worse it came at the hands of Bobby Petrino, former coach of the rival Louisville Cardinals, UK basher, and all around scumbag. Now, I have a feeling this loss came in large part because Petrino (being the self centered and self serving dick that he is) spent his entire offseason coaching his team specifically to beat Kentucky and Tennessee in hopes that 2 wins over SEC teams would propel him into a big time job next year.
But in any event, Kentucky was not the better team and honestly that loss was pretty deflating. Moreover, a significant portion of the loss seemed to stem from the Wildcats being outcoached. Scumbag though he may be Bobby Petrino is a seasoned vet and a top tier SEC calibar head coach. Stoops and his staff should (and will in my opinion) grow into that same level of elite coaching expertise, but you can’t expect them to start there from day 1. The Western game, then, was all about veterans, which makes sense since so many of UK’s guys were in their first ever NCAA 1A game at their given position (from the players all the way up to the head coach). So while it may have been a tough loss it wasn’t inexplicable and it wasn’t bereft of positives either.
For one thing we had the unveiling of the “ground-raid” offense and our cavalcade of tiny Onager-esque running backs. (you see, they’re like workhorse backs… but tiny and fast… eh eh? Also, the 12th fastest mammal on the planet!) In any event, Raymond Sanders III (another fantastic name) looked fantastic running the ball at a 7 yards per carry clip, dual threat QB Jalen Whitlow ran for 75 yards, and one of those freshmen phenoms, Ryan Timmons, threw in a big 30 yard run. Running is generally a fallback for an inexperienced team. Complex passing offenses like Neil Brown’s Air Raid are not easy to learn and install (I know… I tried… this makes me so sad and confused) and when you’re coming from a nearly non existent scheme as was the case under Kentucky’s last regime its going to make it even harder to develop your pass offense no matter how talented your individual players may be. However, The success of the run game seemed to show that Kentucky’s athletes really were everything we were promised and at the very least this team has the caliber of player that deserves to be on an SEC field.
The Miami of Ohio game didn’t leave me with as much to say simply because the level of competition just wasn’t there. Miami is historically a good football program (see: Roethlisberger, Ben) but this year they are struuuuuugglin’. They’re 0-2 and with 2 upcoming games against Cincinnati and Illinois they’re probably open the year 0-4. As far as the Cats, however, we finally saw how things could really click with them both offensively and defensively, at least schematically since the lack of pressure on all sides allowed for increased ease of execution. What I learned from Miami was that all the pieces are there. Western showed we have the athleticism, and Miami showed our coaches know what they’re doing in terms of implementing schemes and our players can execute if given enough of a cushion time wise to make up for their lack of experience. Learning a scheme takes repetition and that’s something our young team and young coaching staff won’t be able to achieve except through hard work and learning on the fly throughout the season. It will happen even though we might not see it since our level of competition will ramp up so harshly once SEC play starts, but this Kentucky team won’t look anything like the team that lost to Western by the time they play Tennessee on November 30th.
Then came the Louisville game. Watching this game made me more hopeful and positive than anything, from recruiting to on the field play, that has happened this year in the world of Kentucky football. For one thing, it seemed to prove the point that Stoops is just as young as his team and he’s learning along the way with them, but this was an enormous step forward for them both. The defense looked absolutely superb. They were playing against a former title game MVP in Michael Dyer, and stuffed him at the line time and time again. The aforementioned Professor Za’Darius threw in yet another sack to threw himself into a tie for #1 in the nation through 3 games with 4.5. The secondary, largely UK’s biggest weakness on defense, held Teddy Bridgewater, Heisman hopeful and projected #2 overall pick in next year’s NFL draft, to 1 touchdown. Even the Linebacking corps which has been called a weakness at times this season, saw Avery Williamson record 15 tackles to put him at 35 on the year and keeping him on pace to yet again be in the conversation to lead the SEC in tackles. Louisville, a national championship contender, scored only 27 points against a Kentucky team that allowed 35 to a far inferior Western Kentucky team. Defense, much like a running game, can come together a lot faster than a complex passing offense and it seems to me that Stoops has already got things moving in an incredibly positive direction with his defense.
(Avery Williamson is so frustratingly underrated it pains me. 15 tackles in a game is absolutely insane and he will be a steal for someone in the 4th round of the draft next year. He’s consistently top 10 in the SEC in tackles but constantly overlooked because of his size, but as I see it a wolverine has just as much ‘fuck you up’ in him as an elephant in spite of his stature)
And speaking of that rushing game again… here we started to see the beginning of Stoops’ young recruits shine. JoJo Kemp, true freshman RB out of Deland FL had 80 yards on 5 carries. The guy is insanely explosive and by pairing him with Sanders we should be able to keep them both fresh. This was a major problem with last year’s running game where we relied on Sanders too long and for too many carries. The guy would just get gassed due to his size and the sheer volume of carries he was receiving. Now with two electric backs in the backfield and the running threat of Jalen “gazelle” Whitlow Kentucky should be able to produce on the ground and hopefully encourage opposing defenses to drop 8 men in the box and open up the passing game.
So… about that passing game. Dropped passes. They KILLED us in this game. I counted 7 throughout the course of the game, and one of them seemed to be a surefire touchdown pass. Midway through the first quarter Ryan Timmons breaks out on a seem route across the middle and Max Smith probably put the ball 6″ too high (likely misjudging Timmons’ height because the guy is reaally small for a receiver) and Timmons gets his hands on the ball but can’t come up with the catch. That could have been a touchdown in my opinion. However, the offense operated perfectly on that play as far as I could tell which is yet another sign of growth. The fundamentals aren’t there (namely, catching a football that touches all 10 of your fingers) but our young guys have an insane amount of athleticism and as soon as they start catching balls we’ll put up points all over the place . Timmons wasn’t the only guy making absurd athletic plays like that. Jeff Badet, another one of our young recruits, had fantastic rapport with Jalen and Max in the second half of the game in spite of his drops. And perhaps most importantly was the breakout game for Javess Blue, a JUCO transfer and the closest thing we have to veteran leadership at WR with Demarco Robinson hurt. All three of these guys dropped a lot of balls but the offense seemed to be clicking. Guys were in the right place at the right time and I’m convinced we could outrun anyone in the SEC if we could just get the ball in our receivers’ hands.
(as this hapless Louisville defender is learning, if Timmons can ever get the ball in his hands he turns into a football field equivalent to soap in a prison shower. Let go of it for 1 second and your whole day is ruined.)
The injury to Smith is worrisome because I personally think he has a better command of the Air Raid Offense and Whitlow, but if Jalen can calm down and start slowing the game down we could become an even better team with him on the field given his running ability.
Kentucky probably left 21 points on the field (the Timmons dropped pass and the 2 red zone turnovers) but they hung with a top ten team led by a Heisman Trophy candidate and that is definitely cause for celebration. A lot of our newcomers seem to be learning just as fast as our coaching staff (Dr. Za’Darius, Blue, Blake McClain and Nate Willis at corner back, Timmons, Badet, and Kemp were all major contributors in this game and none of them were in Kentucky uniforms last year). What shocks me most, however, are the exponential leaps and bounds our staff and players seem to be growing in from game to game. Kentucky likely won’t make it to a bowl game this season, but if they keep improving at this intense rate and if they stay healthy, they could beat the likes of Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee on the back half of the schedule. I can’t wait to watch them play Florida and see if they take another step forward, and I definitely can’t wait to see what they look like next year with another great class incoming and another year of learning and growing from this staff.