Are you pencil or Sharpie confident in the Cats winning its opener in Hattiesburg? UK is an early thirteen-point favorite and will be seeking redemption. Offseason motivation should look no further than week one. Let’s take a July look at the Golden Eagles.
Head Coach: Jay Hopson, 7-6 at Southern Miss
2016 Results: 7-6, beat Louisiana 28-21 in New Orleans Bowl
Southern Miss lost four-year starting quarterback Nick Mullens who passed for 11,994 career yards. Sophomore QB Keon Howard was forced into action following a Mullens concussion against Charlotte a year ago. The rookie struggled as he turned the football over at a high rate (5 fumbles vs. Old Dominion) and lost both starts. Howard is talented and was vastly recruited out of high school after passing for over 10,000-yards. Kwadra Griggs will also compete for the job. Either Howard or Griggs will have elite skill-position talent to ease the post-Mullens transition.
Ito Smith was one of the best running backs the Wildcats faced in 2016, period. He dominated the second half and finished the Golden Eagles’ upset win over the Wildcats with 173-yards. Smith is special as he’s the only active FBS player with over 3000 career rushing and 1000 receiving yards. He’ll be joined by Biletnikoff watch list receiver Allenzae Staggers (63 catches, 1165-yards, 7 TDs) as well as fellow pass catchers Korey Robertson and Isaiah Jones to form one of the most formidable skill groups that Kentucky will face in 2017.
Tackle Ty Pollard and guard Devin Farrior are the offensive line’s only returning starters. It must replace all conference center Cameron Tom which will be as challenging as replacing its starting quarterback.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Returning Starters: 6
-Rushing: Ito Smith – 265 carries, 1459 yards, 17 TDs
-Passing: Keon Howard – 22/50, 365 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs
–Receiving: Allenzae Staggers – 63 receptions, 1165 yards, 7 TDs, 18.5 yards per catch
2016 Offensive Standings
-Scoring: 32.8 ppg (Conf USA-5th)
-Rush: 174.5 ypg (Conf USA-7th)
-Pass: 298.2 ypg (Conf USA-4th)
-Total: 472.8 ypg (Conf USA-4th)
Safety D’Nerius Antoine and DE Dylan Bradley were highly impactful in USM’s win over Kentucky last September. Much like QB Nick Mullens, the pair is now in the NFL. Hopson will deploy a nickel based defense in the opener. Expect safety/nickel Picasso Nelson and linebacker Sherrod Ruff to lead a unit that finished first in Conference USA’s total defense category by allowing just 324-yards per game. DE Xavier Thigpen led the team in QB sacks and will provide pressure off the edge.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Tackles: Picasso Nelson – 48
-Interceptions: Picasso Nelson – 2
-Sacks: Xavier Thigpen – 5
2016 Defensive Standings
-Scoring: 29.5 ppg (Conf USA-4th)
-Rush: 149 ypg (Conf USA-4th)
-Pass: 174 ypg (Conf USA-1st)
-Total: 324 ypg (Conf USA-1st)
What does all this mean?
I expect M.M. Roberts Stadium to be filled to its 36,000 seat capacity on September 2; a significant portion will be wearing blue. First year defensive coordinator Matt House can anticipate a heavy dose of RB Ito Smith as USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson will likely test the UK defensive line early in the contest. Smith is arguably the nation’s best RB in the screen game which will be utilized to steady its new quarterback. WR Allenzae Staggers vs. Derrick Baity and or Chris Westry will be worth the price of admission. Staggers will be one of the cornerback duo’s top challenges in 2017.
Kentucky will benefit from an experienced and highly talented linebacker corps and secondary to match up against an inexperienced quarterback. The Cats can present an overabundance of pre-snap looks that can quickly transition following the snap of the football which can complicate matters for a new signal caller. Thus, Dawson may keep it simple early with Ito Smith right and Ito Smith left.
Concerns for the Cats when Southern Miss has the football
Easy, prevent big plays. Trust me on this: strip the logo off the helmets and understand that Ito Smith and Allenzae Staggers are two of the better offensive players that UK will face in 2017. A missed tackle against either of these two could lead to an explosive play touchdown. The loss of center Cameron Tom decreases its capability in the physical run game. Tom’s absence plus three new OL starters could allow the UK defensive line to establish early confidence. But, expect Shannon Dawson to frequently test the Kentucky front. UK can’t allow early, physical run-game dominated drives for scores.
Concerns for the Cats against the USM defense
Easy again: UK cannot afford first half turnovers or miss during sure-completion passing game scenarios. Do-it-all defender Picasso Nelson will be Stephen Johnson’s key defensive read. Nelson is active vs. the run, in pass coverage, and frequently used as a blitzer. Kentucky has a significant depth advantage for the 4:00pm kickoff which will assuredly call for extremely hot weather.
Eddie Gran’s ability to challenge the Golden Eagles’ lack of front-seven depth and inexperience with a physical run game could be the difference. It could be wild early on, but Kentucky’s offensive line should win the battle of attrition in the trenches. As the BBN witnessed in 2016, if the Cats jump out to an early lead it must extend success into the second half.
Stay tuned for much more.