A little more than halfway through the 2020 Kentucky football season, it’s time for KSR to hand out its midterm report card. Each grade is slightly weighted by preseason expectation. Certainly there are objective measures, but like the dreaded open-ended essay exam, the subjective look at the 2-4 start more accurately captures how the BBN feels about each position group.
No position entered the season with higher expectations than Kentucky’s pass defense after allowing the fewest pass touchdowns in the country in 2019. Every starter except Jordan Griffin returned and Kelvin “Bossman Fat” Joseph entered the fold. Kentucky’s secondary had to be even better in 2020, right? Well, not right away.
Doom and gloom clouded the Big Blue Nation after Seth Williams Mossed his way to an Auburn victory and Lane Kiffin’s tempo carved up the Cats. After those two games, UK ranked last in the nation in QB efficiency rating. Four games later, they’re in the Top 25. That’s not even the most impressive statistical development.
Over the last four games opponents are averaging only 179.75 passing yards per game. They have not passed for a touchdown, while UK’s defense has picked off 11 passes, tied for the most in the nation. Bossman Fat has three of his own, also tied for the most in the nation. The pass defense has only surrendered five pass plays of 30 yards or more, the fewest in the SEC. Yusuf Corker has been a tackling machine at times too, recording 18 against Missouri. The safety ranks 12th in the SEC with 43 tackles.
Despite the disappointing start, over the last four games Kentucky’s defensive backs proved they do not need to be disciplined by dropping a letter grade to meet lofty preseason expectations.
There is plenty of talent in Kentucky’s linebacker room, just not much depth. Jamin Davis was expected to be inside linebacker No. 3 until Chris Oats suffered an unexpected medical emergency. The loss could have crippled Kentucky’s defense. Instead, Jamin Davis rose to the occasion.
The redshirt junior has been spectacular, recording double-digit tackles in each of the last four games, now up to 58 on the season, the second-most in the SEC. Davis has also blocked a field goal and picked off two passes, one that stopped a touchdown in the end zone and another he returned 85 yards for a score.
Davis’ running-mate, DeAndre Square, has been exceptional, as usual, now up to 43 tackles on the season. Boogie Watson is up to three sacks on the season. The three W’s on the edge — Watson, Wright and Weaver — have combined for 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, seven QB hurries and two interceptions. Weaver is showing signs that he’ll be a star in the near future. Reserves Marquez Bembry and Jared Casey have been formidable after slowly easing into action.
As good as they’ve played at times, the defense becomes too “bend don’t break” if the edge defenders aren’t making havoc plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. To put it bluntly, the first Georgia scoring drive was entirely on the shoulders of poor play by the edges. Getting stops were hard to come by at the beginning of the year because they could not get home on third down pressures. The defense goes as the edges go, and they sometimes leave us wanting more, but Jamin Davis has been so fantastic I’m going to grade on a curve.
Kentucky’s defensive line has rotated in a ton of players and there hasn’t been a significant drop-off in production. Quinton Bohanna missed two games, forcing Bully McCall to play an astonishing 51 snaps against Missouri, but he remained unfazed.
The Wildcats have been exceptional in the interior by eating up gaps and they’ve made plays on the edge. Josh Paschal picked off a pass and almost took it 70 yards to the house, stopped just short of the goal line to set up a touchdown and turn the tide against Mississippi State. Phil Hoskins made an even more impressive athletic play when he tipped the ball to himself for a red zone interception that took away a Georgia scoring opportunity.
Josh Paschal nearly took this to the house for Kentucky. ?
— Cats Coverage ? (@CatsCoverage_) October 11, 2020
RB @CROD_JR rushed 20 times for 108 yards last week.
• His second ?-yard game of the season and fourth of his career.
• He now has 989 career rushing yards. pic.twitter.com/dFsy6dDkw9
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) November 5, 2020
Like Bohanna, Paschal has been banged up. He did not finish that Miss. State game thanks to a knee sprain. It’s slowed his production down in recent weeks, particularly in the pass rush. Teams aren’t trying to throw the ball too much against UK, limiting opportunities, but if not for the interceptions the defensive line would be severely lacking in havoc plays. Kentucky ranks ninth in the SEC in tackles for loss (27) and 12th in sacks (8), forcing me to take the D-line off the A-line.
Max Duffy is doing what Max Duffy does: kick bombs. He’s currently ranked sixth nationally by averaging 46.25 yards per punt. Unfortunately, we’ve only seen one fake from him and it was a misguided attempt against Auburn. That special teams snafu is not the most devastating of the year. That would belong to Matt Ruffolo’s missed PAT in overtime against Ole Miss. Other than the two misses against the Rebels, Ruffolo has been perfect, making 5-of-6 field goals, including a 50-yarder.
I do have one more complaint: Josh Ali has to catch punts. Kentucky’s offense need all the help it can get and right now they’re losing too many yards on special teams.
Entering the season, Kentucky was going to go as far as Terry Wilson would take them. The Wildcats’ 2-4 record reflects his play.
Wilson was efficient against Ole Miss, completing 14-of-18 passes for 151 yards and rushing for 129 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. He had a few good moments in the opener against Auburn, but a fumble and an interception in the end zone effectively wiped out any chance Kentucky had at winning the game. He did not make mistakes against Tennessee, throwing just three incompletions but only gaining 101 yards. Outside of that, there isn’t much good to say about Wilson’s play.
Of course, not all of the passing woes fall on Terry Wilson’s shoulders. The receivers have not fulfilled their end of the bargain. Nevertheless, it’s discouraging to see Wilson not just struggle with accuracy, but with decision-making in the run game. Lynn Bowden developed a blueprint to create a dynamic QB-run game. Except for the Ole Miss game, we’ve mostly just seen one bad read after another, followed by fumbles.
A wrist injury sidelined Wilson for the Georgia game. He returned to practice Wednesday, yet we may have seen the last of Terry Touchdown. Joey Gatewood completed 60% of his passes against the Dawgs. What can the Auburn transfer offer? There’s not a large enough sample size to know for sure, which is why I ultimately believe Kentucky’s coaches will test him him with game reps in the final four contests of the season.
Kentucky’s three-headed monster at running back has turned into the Chris Rodriguez show. Durability issues popped up for Kavosiey Smoke after he was sidelined with a rib injury against Ole Miss. Speaking of Ole Miss, that game started like a wet fart that turned out to be more than just a fart, thanks to the deuce A.J. Rose chucked up before he was tackled from behind, short of the goal line.
Inconsistency has marred Rose’s final season. Even though he actually improved dramatically in third and short situations, he has struggled to get the aggravating yards on first down, infuriating fans who want to see Rodriguez barrel forward through traffic. Rose’s 29-yard run at Missouri was one of the offense’s few bright spots, but those bright spots are too few far in-between. His carries diminished to only three vs. Georgia.
After some reluctance by Gran, Rodriguez appears to have turned into Kentucky’s work horse out of the backfield. That hesitation forces me to grade the position group harshly, even though Pro Football Focus gives Rodriguez the highest grade of any running back in the SEC.
Rodriguez has made the most of his opportunities while not necessarily holding on to a typical bell-cow role. Rodriguez is handling 38% of all rushing attempts for the Wildcats, while fellow running back Asim Rose and quarterbacks Terry Wilson and Joey Gatewood combine for 55% of the team’s carries.
Despite splitting carries with two dual-threat quarterbacks and another running back, Rodriguez ranks as one of the more efficient backs in the SEC. The redshirt sophomore has recorded either a first down or touchdown on 40.0% of his carries, the highest rate among all SEC running backs. Since Week 5, 55% of his carries have gained 5-plus yards, and he has averaged an SEC-leading 6.1 yards per carry.
The Big Blue Wall has lived up to its name in the run game. Kentucky averages 2.79 yards on ground before contact, ranked second in the SEC. That means the UK offensive line is opening up rushing lanes for the backs. They’ve been so efficient, Pro Football Focus ranks UK’s offensive line first in the SEC and seventh nationally.
As expected, they’ve been rusty in pass protection, falling victim to miscommunications on various twists by the defensive line. Kentucky has given up 13 sacks so far this year, more than two per game. In predictable passing situations UK has a 15.6% sack rate, ranked 96 out of 103 teams.
“Big men lead the way.” That was evident in the offensive line’s first game without John Schlarman. The obvious emotional turmoil led to a let down at Missouri and showed just how widespread offensive problems are. Kentucky’s offense is only as good as its line right now and it hasn’t always met its high standard.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Kentucky is an average offense away from being a Top 25 team. Unfortunately, Brad White’s incredible defense through the last four games has been overshadowed by the inept offensive play. In a normal year, the Cats could have padded their stats against some bad teams, giving the unit more confidence ahead of the SEC gauntlet. Eddie Gran’s offense got their sea-legs almost immediately and it’s never been able to recover.
The Wildcats are below .500, but in a normal year the wins over Miss. State and Tennessee mean Kentucky had an above average season. They may not make it above .500 to finish the 10-game SEC season. If they reach 4-6 and show offensive improvements after midterm that stop the bleeding, a bowl game win could provide the momentum the Wildcats need to keep the train on the tracks in 2021.