We’ve reached the midway point of the season and Kentucky enters their bye week with an impressive 5-1 record. The Wildcats are currently ranked for the second week in a row and own a 3-1 mark in SEC play. It’s been a solid start for an offense that is averaging 29.3 points per game and 5.9 yards per play. There have been some groans lately, but let’s not forget about the impressive performances put on early in the season.
There is still a long way to go and it’s important to remember that three of UK’s conference opponents ranked in the top 25 of S&P+’s defensive efficiency rankings. The other two FBS opponents currently sit at 36 and 49. Eddie Gran’s unit has faced the roughest stretch of the season. Waiting on UK in the back half? Defenses that are ranked 53rd, 65th, 85th, and 87th in efficiency. Higher point totals are on the way.
When assessing UK’s quarterback situation, it is easy to have recency bias. Terry Wilson is fresh off his worst performance since the opener against Central Michigan and it was dreadful. On the season, Wilson is delivering the ball with accuracy but his passes are not going anywhere. He is only averaging 6.2 yards per attempt and this ranks 13th among starting quarterbacks in the SEC.
The wrap on Wilson going into the year was that he was going to make explosive plays but was going to struggle to consistently complete passes. Through six games it’s been the opposite. His completion rate of 66.4% ranks third in the SEC but he’s only produced passes of 25+ yards four times this season. That’s just not going to cut it and during the bye week UK must find a solution to this big play inability.
On the ground, the junior college transfer is second in quarterback rushing yards behind Nick Fitzgerald and is averaging 6.6 yards per attempt on non-sack carries. That’s a good rate but once again the big play element is falling up short. After rushing for a combined 185 yards with multiple 20+ yards runs in the wins over Florida and Murray State, Wilson has only recorded 81 rushing yards in the next three games. Defenses have adjusted and have been able to limit his big plays.
Turnovers have been an issue with Wilson. He has five interceptions on the season and two lost fumbles. Since the Florida game, he hasn’t had a turnover that has really hurt Kentucky. All of his interceptions have occurred on deep shots with no returns by the defense. That is the kind of giveaway you want to have.
In all, Wilson’s performance against Florida (256 total yards, three touchdowns) was the biggest reason for the Kentucky win. His performance against Texas A&M (112 total yards on 20 passes and 14 rushes) was the biggest reason for the loss. In the other wins outside of Central Michigan, the game has been managed by the raw quarterback prospect.
After playing some really tough defenses, the schedule lightens up in October and November. It will be essential for the young quarterback to have some good things happen against Vanderbilt and Mizzou to gain some rhythm and confidence for the rest of the year.
Running Backs: A
We entered the season knowing all about Benny Snell and he has lived up to the billing. The junior is a legit All-American candidate who is on pace for over 1,400 yards rushing and is currently second in rushing in the SEC. He’s been a bonafide star and is finally receiving the national recognition he deserves. But the biggest story in the running back room happens to be his sidekick.
Last season the offense took a big drop off whenever Snell left the field. That was obvious in the Music City Bowl. Kentucky totally had to scrap its ground game when Snell was unrightfully ejected from the game in the first half. One of UK’s biggest goals of the offseason was to find a legit secondary option to Snell and they sure have found that with A.J. Rose.
The former high school quarterback from Cleveland struggled last year and seemed to spend most of the season in Eddie Gran’s doghouse. But after an offseason of hard work and a brilliant spring game performance, Rose has emerged as the future of UK’s running back position.
The redshirt sophomore has 237 yards on 36 carries with four touchdowns and a 6.6 yards per carry average. Those are excellent numbers and the UK ground game hasn’t tailed off at all with him in the lineup. It’s hard to imagine things going any better for Eddie Gran’s position group.
Wide Receivers: C
Let’s start with the positives. Lynn Bowden has been very efficient in the slot with catches on 80% of his targets and he leads the Wildcats in receptions and touchdowns. The former blue-chip recruit has shown improvement in his route running and he has the potential to develop into one of the best receivers in the SEC.
In the run game, the Wildcats outside wideouts have been near dominant blocking on the perimeter. Both Dorian Baker and Tavin Richardson have a size advantage against every corner they face and they’ve been able to impose their will in blocking situations. This ability has helped UK’s ground game turn seven-yards runs into 20+ yard gains and that should be appreciated.
However, the outside passing game is really struggling and not all of the blame falls on the quarterback position. Dorian Baker has been the most targeted player on vertical routes and too many of these passes are coming up empty. Drops have been a bit of the issue for the senior. After recording 11 receptions in the final three games of 2017, Tavin Richardson has only been targeted eight times this season with two receptions. Sophomores Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps have yet to make a significant impact in their college careers.
UK is getting very good slot play from Lynn Bowden and David Bouvier, but the Wildcats must find answers outside. One of the biggest missing pieces for this offense is getting the outside passing game involved. UK must find some answers in the second half of the season.
Tight Ends: B+
Man, I really wanted to give this group an A. As expected, both C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg have done a very good job helping the offensive line create running lanes for UK’s potent ground attack. The duo may be the best blocking group in the SEC and they’ve shown versatility. At times, Conrad is used as a glorified fullback and on many runs he is able to land a key block on a linebacker. They’ve been excellent at this level.
In the passing game, Conrad and Rigg have combined for a very efficient 16 catches on 17 targets but the problem is that these receptions aren’t going anywhere. In the past three games, we have seen Conrad begin to pick up more yards and that is a good sign moving forward.
Getting this position more of an opportunity to help the passing game further down the field with only help out Terry Wilson.
However, I want you to keep this in mind. Kentucky must find a way to create vertical shots in the passing game. A way to do this could be using max protection (using as many pass blockers as possible) to give Wilson time to launch the football. If that happens, that means extra blocking responsibility for the tight end position. In this offense, the tight end spot is a selfless position and these two appear more than willing to fill that role.
Offensive Line: B
The Wildcats came out of the gates on fire to begin 2018. Behind Drake Jackson at center, UK ran for over 200 yards in each of its first four games of 2018 with 13 rushing touchdowns. The offensive line dominated in the road win against Florida and more then held their own against a Mississippi State front loaded with future NFL draft picks.
But in the last six quarters they’ve hit some bumps in the road.
Starting in the second half against South Carolina, UK’s front began to struggle. It didn’t get any better in the next game against Texas A&M with the Wildcats only rushing for 70 yards. John Schlarman’s unit is still fairly healthy but pre-snap penalties and some defensive adjustments have caused some problems.
With the running game struggling, the pass protection becomes a liability. Kentucky is currently allowing sacks on 7.5% of dropbacks and this is one of the worst rates in the nation. For this group to succeed, the ground game must produce consistently.
The Wildcats are still very healthy, but depth at tackle has taken a major hit with the losses of Landon Young and Naasir Watkins. Keeping the starters out of the training room will be vital to the success of the group for the rest of the season.
I know the hot take of the moment is to hammer Eddie Gran for the team’s performance against Texas A&M, but it’s time to look at the big picture. Kentucky’s ball control, smashmouth offense has been a big key to the 5-1 start. Behind a solid offensive line and a stud running back, the Wildcats muscled their ways to wins over Florida, Mississippi State, and South Carolina in September.
The passing game has been a big issue and it is something that must be fixed. UK must find a way to manufacture some big plays in the passing game. Whether it’d be through the wildcat formation or another gadget play, UK has to be able to test the defense vertically. The Wildcats also need a receiver emerge as a big play threat in the next six weeks.
The Texas A&M performance was very bad and it should be used as a learning tool. It’s also important to remember that Gran and his staff put a great plan together against Florida that could’ve turned into a blowout if not for two first half turnovers. If you’re going to call out the bad, it’s only fair to recognize the good.
This group has much to work on but they’re in a good spot entering the second half of the season.