We have officially entered the bye week portion of the 2020 season and man, is it desperately needed. Sitting at 2-4 and fresh off its most physical game of the season, UK has much more questions than answers as we are now in November and things must be figured out before UK welcomes Vanderbilt to Lexington.
In this week’s Monday Huddle, we will do our best to reset at the breaking point and recognize everything going on with the program both good and bad. The warts tend to be pretty obvious on offense while the defense is putting together a season that is similar to what we saw back in 2018. Not everything is bad, but like Bill Parcells said a long time ago, you are what your record says you are.
First Down: What happened to the wideouts?
On Thanksgiving Saturday 2016, Kentucky walked into Louisville as a four-touchdown dog with a banged up quarterback, a 6-5 record and a defense that was allowing over six yards per play set to face the likely Heisman Trophy winner on the road. We all know what happened next as UK shocked UofL with Stephen Johnson throwing for a career-high 352 yards while the wide receiver corps of Dorian Baker, Jeff Badet and Juice Johnson were all set to return for the next season. After the first year under both Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, the passing game looked like it was poised to become a position of strength for the program.
We have seen UK play 46 games since that day and they haven’t had another quarterback throw for 300 yards since. Just what went wrong?
Badet surprisingly left for Oklahoma and a banged up Stephen Johnson barely finished the season after a strong start in 2017. After a turnover plagued debut in 2018, UK quickly switched to ground and pound as the defense proved to be one of the best in college football. Injuries destroyed the QB room in 2019 with UK turning to an all-out wildcat formation offense. In 2020, the problem hasn’t been avoided and the lack of talent at wide receiver is rearing its ugly head.
Kentucky is on its third wide receiver coach in four seasons and lost Lynn Bowden Jr. and Ahmad Wagner from 2020. Josh Ali showed some signs, but didn’t appear to be a true No. 1 option. Outside of that, it was a lot of unknown with plenty of upperclassmen options since the Wildcats signed eight wideouts combined in the classes of 2017 and 2018. However, those are starting to look like recruiting misses and there aren’t many options at the spot.
Facing a Georgia team that plays strictly man coverage with NFL players at every secondary position, the weakness were on full display. UK could not create any separation on the perimeter forcing their quarterback to take checkdown after checkdown. Teams are stuffing the box and outside of Ali there is not a reliable answer.
The first thing this offense needs is personnel help and that help is on the way. UK has four very good wideouts committed in the class of 2020 on top of a solid haul in 2019. It would be a shock if a couple of transfers are not added in the offseason. In the meantime, the problem is what it is. Hopefully Gran and Hinshaw can figure something out during the bye to help jumpstart this offense. It’s clear to be a major problem and hard to see the problem changing without some roster turnover.
Second Down: Kentucky’s defense is legit
With six games under their belt, Kentucky’s defense ranks second in the SEC in yards per play allowed and scoring defense while showing very few weaknesses. The Wildcats have forced 12 takeaways and lead the SEC in red zone defense. They’re doing all of this likely without one first-team All-SEC selection and with only four major senior contributors. Brad White has been one of the best assistants in all of college football this season.
UK has the best run defense of the Mark Stoops era while the pass defense has found its grove after a slow start to begin the year. They’re doing it all with their least effective pass rush in quite some time as the Wildcats rank 12th in the SEC when it comes to sack rate. This is a defense that is getting production at every level and is allowing the team to stay in games.
This group shoutout Mike Leach’s offense, produced two defensive touchdowns and kept Tennessee to one touchdown in the historic win while allowing the offense numerous chances in the losses to Missouri and Georgia. They may have the best scoring opportunity defense in college football and are doing it all without much star power.
ESPN’s FPI ranks UK No. 19 in defensive efficiency as they’ve been rock solid for most of the season. The ineffectiveness of the offense is going to get all of the attention as we close out the season, but this has been a really good defense put together by both Stoops and White this season with many pieces returning next season. Get excited about this side of the ball because if UK can figure things out on offense they will be in great shape.
Third Down: The Alpha
For weeks, many of us have screamed from the rooftops about Christopher Rodriguez Jr. needing more carries. The redshirt sophomore tailback has been one of the most efficient players in college football throughout the season and appears to be a proven entity for an offense desperately needing an identity. In the first five games he only recorded more than 15 carries once and that has felt like a mistake for the majority of the season. That changed on Saturday and he backed up the data with a strong performance against the best defense in college football.
Rodriguez collected 108 yards on 20 carries with zero negative gains and two rushes of over 10 yards against a defense that doesn’t give up chunk plays. His 23-yard sprint in the third quarter was the longest rush play UGA has allowed all season while his 60% rushing success rate is likely something that defense won’t see again for the rest of the season. Kentucky entered this season not knowing who their stars would be on offense, but they seem to have found once in their workhorse back.
After the bye with some seemingly fresh legs, I suspect you’ll see Kentucky ride No. 24 heavily to close the year. He seems to be a back that gets stronger as the game goes on and provides much needed efficiency to keep the chains moving. If they are able to find any way to create explosive plays they could have a nice blend to close the season.
Fourth Down: Gatewood’s time
In his first ever start, it was a mixed bad former Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood. The former top-1oo recruit averaged just 3.64 yards per attempt while taking four sacks and posting a rushing success rate of just 33.33%. The big quarterback did not really run behind his pads and UK was never able to push the ball vertically despite the impressive arm talent the big quarterback possesses. However, he is your guy moving forward.
There are still wins on the table and you have to play your best guy, but at this point there does not appear to be much separating both Gatewood and Terry Wilson. In the back of your mind, you also have to start thinking about 2021 a little bit and need to know if Gatewood can be the QB1 for your program long-term. This four game run to end the season should help provide the answers to that looming question.
With a bye week combined with some playing experience, UK now has enough at its disposal to draw up an effective mode of attack for their new quarterback. Now we need to see if he can go out and make plays against SEC defenses. In many ways, the UGA game could be considered a wash for a multitude of reasons but now the real grading begins. If UK is able to to find something in their young quarterback to close the season it could mean very good things for the program moving forward. If not, it might be worth going after another transfer again in the offseason. The Wildcats need to do whatever it takes to get solid quarterback play.
KSR again went to the 606 for our game of the week as Johnson Central hosted Belfry with two of the state’s better teams going at it in Paintsville. The Golden Eagles easily handled the Pirates and look to be a very strong state title contender.
— Aaron Perkins (@Aaron_Perkins21) October 31, 2020
Our own Troy Howell has you caught up to speed on all of the action as Gavin Wimsatt continues to put up monster numbers for Owensboro while UK commit Kaiya Sheron was unable to go for Somerset due to injury. Meanwhile, Trinity is once again the best team in the state and it may be by a wide margin.
The Week Ahead at KSR
It’ll be another week jam-packed of football content even with no game on Saturday. Make sure you are subscribed to all four of our podcasts: 11 Personnel, Free Money, The Depth Chart Podcast and The KSR Football Podcast. Each will be dropping at a different point some time this week.
There will be a lot of talk this week and we will be here to provide plenty of content. This is a big moment for the Kentucky football program that will need to find offensive answers sooner rather than later.