We’ve completed the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line) and defense (defensive line, edge, inside linebackers, secondary) but we’ve got one position group remaining.
A year after replacing the best placekicker in school history, Kentucky returns one of the better punters in the country to go with a dynamic punt returner. After a step back in 2018, the pieces are in place for the Wildcats to become one of the better special teams unit in the FBS.
After Joe Mansour hit 12 of 14 field goals in 2013, Austin MacGinnis stepped into a starting role in his redshirt freshman season the following year and never looked back. On his way to becoming the best kicker in program history, MacGinnis hit 78.3 percent of his career 92 field goal attempts with only two PAT misses. He was a stud who is still fighting and clawing for a spot on an NFL roster. After five years of great placekicking, Kentucky had a significant setback year in 2018.
With MacGinnis moving on, the expectation was for true freshman Chance Poore to take over the placekicking duties but the staff was not ready to turn the South Carolina native loose. Instead, they rolled with former walk-on Miles Butler for most of the season. The Paducah native hit just 7 0f 11 field goals but had a long of just 40 yards. This severely hamstrung UK’s offense in scoring opportunities.
In the punting department, Kentucky has mostly struggled since Mark Stoops took over the program. Landon Foster mostly was up and down after an impressive freshman season in 2012 while Grant McKinniss put up a ghastly 39.2 yards per punt as a true freshman in 2016. With Dean Hood coming onto the staff as special teams coordinator in 2017, Kentucky decided to dip into the Australian punter pool.
The Wildcats landed grad transfer Matt Panton from the Ivy League and the Australian was one of the SEC’s best punters in 2017. In the 2018 recruiting class, the Wildcats went back to Australia and landed Max Duffy. The former Australian Rules Football player ranked 10th in the FBS in punt efficiency per S&P+ as a 25-year-old sophomore. He’s set to be one of the best punters in college football in 2019.
In the return department, Kentucky went years without scoring a touchdown on a kick/punt return. That changed in 2016 when Charles Walker took a punt to the house against New Mexico State. The Louisville St. Xavier grad rarely provided a ton of pop on returns, but consistently saved UK hidden yardage with fair catches. After playing with David Bouvier in 2018, Lynn Bowden, Jr. stepped in and gave a big play pop to the position.
The team’s primary kick returner stepped in and took two of his five punt returns back for scores. He’s set to be one of the most explosive return men in college football. Entering 2019, Kentucky is still searching for its first kick return touchdown since Derrick Locke took one to the crib in the win over Louisville in 2009.
The Specialists Room
Chance Poore was ranked the No. 1 kicker in the country per Prokicker.com coming out of high school and many expected the South Carolina native to come in and be a day one starter for the Wildcats. That, however, was not the case.
The coaching staff had some other plans. Poore was able to redshirt despite playing in three games and hitting half of his four field goal attempts. This year the redshirt freshman is set to be the starter and UK is hopeful he can bring more range to the position.
In the punting department, Max Duffy returns for his junior season and expectations are very high. The Australian is in position to become one of the sport’s best punters this fall. He can be a true game changer for the Wildcats this season when it comes to establishing field position.
In the return department, get excited about Lynn Bowden, Jr. The Youngstown native is headed to an NFL roster in the near future, but in the meantime he’ll be making people miss while wearing the blue and white. Bowden could become the best punt returner in college football this season and will likely be used in special situations as a kick returner.
In the kick return game, look for a pair of true frosh to make an impact. Both cornerback M.J. Devonshire and running back Travis Tisdale have blazing speed and right now it seems like the plan is for both of them to play in 2019. Each has the potential to effect the game in the return department.
Grant McKinniss struggled as a punter in 2017, but he appeared to have found his niche in 2018. The Findlay, Ohio native served as the team’s kickoff specialist last season and produced a respectable touchback rate of 54.5 percent. When not going deep, McKinniss delivered kickoffs with precision and put together a success rate of 87.9 percent. This ranked 27th in the FBS and should improve this upcoming season.
Kentucky has a ton of pieces returning in the third phase this season. Max Duffy will be one of the best punters in college football while Lynn Bowden, Jr. is super dangerous in the return game. Grant McKinniss provides great work in the kickoff department and UK should be very well set in the field position battle.
There are a couple of questions to be answered. The placekicking spot was the biggest reason Kentucky struggled on special teams last season and those issues must be corrected. The Wildcats need Chance Poore to live up to the hype he had coming out of high school. Finding someone outside of Bowden to provide a pop in the return game would be an excellent addition. The Wildcats are flat out due for a kick return touchdown.
Dean Hood has done very solid work in his first two seasons as UK’s special teams coordinator and in 2019 he has a chance to have one of the best special teams units in college football. This third phase of the game has the chance to win or lose close games for the Wildcats this fall.