After previewing the entire offense (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line) and defense (defensive line, linebacker, secondary) it’s now time for the final part of the preview series as we enter the third phase of football.
Kentucky heads into 2018 with major questions surrounding it’s special teams unit as second year coordinator Dean Hood has a tall task in front of him. Kentucky will be without its best kicker in program history for the first time since 2013 and Matthew Panton departs after one year as a very reliable punter as a grad transfer. The shoes to fill are quite large as UK’s unproven parts have a lot to prove.
It’s the elephant in the room that is probably just not getting enough attention, but UK must find an answer to losing Austin MacGinnis. The Alabama native became a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2014 and would never look back as he hit multiple game winning field goals as he became the program’s all-time leader in field goals made as well as scoring. He was nearly automatic and his ability to be efficient gave UK a huge strategic weapon when they found themselves with a scoring opportunity.
It’s next man up time in Lexington as Miles Butler and Chance Poore find themselves in a battle during fall camp. Just this week, Mark Stoops made an announcement that Butler will be on scholarship for his senior season. In 2015, he stepped in for MacGinnis to hit four field goals and 11 of 12 extra points. Last year, he handled punting duties in the win over Vanderbilt as he averaged 38.7 yards per attempt.
Poore enters the season as a highly touted prep kicker out of South Carolina who is known to have a big leg. Don’t be surprised if you see split duties from these two this season.
In Matt Panton, UK lost a punter that averaged over 42 yards per attempt and was one of the most efficient punters in the SEC. The grad transfer is gone after just one season but UK has some options there. Grant McKinniss is back after a redshirt season after he averaged 39 yards per punt as a true freshman in 2016. Kentucky went back to the Outback to get another punter as Max Duffy enters Lexington as a 25 year old sophomore. Duffy has a huge leg and has a lot of fans excited.
In the return department, Lynn Bowden gave UK a legit kick return option for the first time in awhile. The rookie averaged 23.5 yards per return and nearly took one to paydirt in the win over Vanderbilt. In a limited sample size, Sihiem King averaged nearly 28 yards per return last season. UK is in very good hands on kickoff returns.
In the punt return department, Charles Walker was not flashy with his returns but, man, was he valuable. Per S&P+, UK ranked eight in punt return efficiency. That is mighty valuable for a team that puts a big emphasis on field position. For this season, there is a big battle for the next man up but it’s been leaked out that former walk-on David Bouvier may be the guy. That would keep the strategy of a smart decision maker who won’t exactly be a home run threat in the return department. I think the coaching staff is just fine with that even though they will not have someone explosive like Bowden back there.
Under Mark Stoops, UK’s special teams unit made a very quick turnaround after having one of the nation’s most inefficient groups in 2014 turn into one of the nation’s best in 2017. UK’s ability to constantly win the field position battle last year was a huge key in them winning seven games while they were outgained by an average of 77.1 yards per game. With that said, a lot of seniors were a huge piece to that puzzle and now Kentucky must find new answers.
With Dean Hood returning as special teams coordinator to go with both Eddie Gran and Matt House who served as previous special teams coordinators at the Power Five level, you have to trust the Cats’ brain trust in this department. It is clear that Mark Stoops has put an emphasis a fielding excellent special teams the last two seasons and 2018 should be no different.
They could start out slow but with two scholarship kickers and two scholarship punters on the roster this thing should figure itself out. UK has a potential gamebreaker in Lynn Bowden on kick returns while Bouvier could give them the same efficiency as Charles Walker provided on punts. Expectations are high for Bowden as a kick return specialist as UK looks to keep special teams a strength in 2018.
It’s going to really be hard to replace the production lost from last season. UK may need to some big returns to help fill the void of losing the program’s all-time best placekicker. We’re looking at you, Mr. Bowden.