I got to sit down and talk football with a SPARQ compatriot of mine, Will Marshall, from A Sea of Blue about the game this Saturday. Below are some of his thoughts about Kentucky and how they’ll fare in the upcoming match.
Be sure to check out their site later for the other half of our Q&A session.
Brent: Kentucky is currently 2-2, and 1-1 in the SEC. Losses to good programs in Southern Miss and Florida marred the start of the season, but a rebound against New Mexico State and an SEC team in South Carolina seems to have injected some hope back into the fanbase. Do you think the 2-2 record accurately reflects this team? Are they better than their record? Worse?
Will: I would say they are a 2-2 team. This has been a fairly mediocre program under Mark Stoops, and not much has changed early into his fourth season. It's a huge step up from the Joker Phillips era in terms of recruiting, infrastructure, and programmatic professionalism in many respects, but only a small step up with on the field results. That's a round about way of saying UK continues to beat the teams it probably should, but has yet to punch above its weight. At the same time, there's a very good argument that UK really should have beaten Southern Miss, and while still lose, not have gotten blown out by only a slightly above average Florida team.
Brent: The Wildcat offense obviously goes through the run game, what with 50 rushes against South Carolina next week. Will Kentucky run the ball that much again this week? Do you think it will be effective? Is your passing game better than it’s given credit for?
Will: UK's best weapon is its rushing attack, especially with back-up quarterback Stephen Johnson taking the reins of the offense while Drew Barker recovers from a fairly significant back injury. UK will try and run the ball, and will probably find success in moments, but I would be very surprised if UK is able to maintain success doing so against Alabama's front seven. 'Bama is just that good up front. UK's best chance to move the ball are explosive plays on the ground by Boom Williams, Benny Snell, or Jojo Kemp.
The passing game has been boom-or-bust for two seasons now. Stoops' staff has probably recruited and developed the receiver position better than any other position outside of the defensive backs, and meanwhile tight end CJ Conrad was the crown jewel of the 2015 signing class. Probably the team's best receiver, Dorian Baker, hasn't even played yet this season due to a hamstring injury, but the unit hasn't missed a beat. In short, there's a ton of potential but they are hampered by UK's offensive tackles who don't typically give the them time to get down the field, or for the quarterback to work through his progressions.
I imagine UK will have to keep a running back and/or H-back in the backfield to protect against 'Bama's tremendous pass-rushing, and even then Johnson won't have much time to make a decision. While he looked very smooth against New Mexico State his performance against South Carolina's pass-rush was more of a mixed bag. I can see him getting rattled against the Tide, and making poor decisions as he's still learning the position in a competitive league.
Brent: Who are the difference makers on the Kentucky defense? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Will: The defense has struggled this season, and youth is somewhat to blame for that. The best players are redshirt or true sophomores on that side of the ball. Jordan Jones is a WILL 'backer who leads the team in tackles, and fellow sophomores Denzil Ware and Joshua Allen are the outside linebackers that are UK's two best pass-rushers. Jones is a tackling machine but his weakness is he still takes bad angles at times. He's all motor with not much rudder for now, but he's young and will very likely play on Sundays. Ware and Allen each are still refining pass-rush techniques, and they don't have any secondary moves around offensive tackles if initially thwarted. Neither are great against the run either, as South Carolina find a lot of success running counter out of three- and four-wide sets against them. Like much of the defensive, I think they'll get better with time but for now are young.
In the secondary, boundary corner Chris Westry is 6'4'' stud who UK was lucky to get after Auburn cut him in favor of another player (Jeremiah Dinson who coincidentally was committed to UK). UK's opposition has not challenged Westry much this season. I'm interested to see how he plays Saturday against Calvin Ridley and Cam Sims, because it will be a measure for his development.
Brent: Where does JoJo Kemp fit into the offense? It seems he’s been around forever and on the verge of a breakout season the whole time, but his stats look down so far this season. Has he just been buried on the depth chart? Is he still a factor?
Will: Kemp is probably the third string running back this season. He's been banged up a bit, and meanwhile freshman running back Benny Snell has been amazing, so he's lost some carries. One of Kemp's advantages over Boom Williams last season was that he was great in short yardage situations, but this year Snell is also really good in those situations so he's lost a bit of his comparative advantage.
I think Kemp will definitely be a factor this season because running backs tend to get banged up as the season progresses as we all know. When healthy he's still has a decent burst, and he's probably UK's best at pass protection and has good hands receiving out of the backfield. He's also well-liked by the coaches, and is thought of as someone who has his head on straight. All things being equal, he'll remain a factor, but he's not going to be a game-changer most weeks.
Brent: At what matchup against Alabama do you think Kentucky has the best chance of exploiting a Wildcat strength or Tide weakness?
Will: Well, realistically speaking, I don't think UK has the edge over 'Bama in any match-up. If I were to strain I guess I'd say UK playing tempo, and forcing 'Bama to rotate in the back-up defensive backs. If that happens, UK may find some success throwing the ball, which hopefully would then subsequently allow for success running the ball, but to get to that point is unlikely. I think UK won't try tempo because they want to minimize possessions, and keep their defense off the field.
Brent: What is your prediction for the game?
Will: This Alabama defense is just too nasty, and while the offense doesn't appear to be great, UK's defense was one of the worst in the country statistically prior to the South Carolina game. I'm skeptical UK's defense has improved to the point that they can hold back Alabama's offense, and maintain field position for UK's offense.
I think Alabama is winning this one 45-3 entering the fourth quarter, and then the Tide's back-ups get to play the entire last quarter. UK may steal a score or two late, but it will be in meaningless garbage time. Let's say the final score is 52-10 in favor of The Fighting Damien Harris's. I can live with that as long as UK doesn't suffer any injuries, and is able to physically and mentally bounce back the following week in a must-win versus Vanderbilt.
Thanks again to Will Marshall and our friends at A Sea of Blue
Here’s to hoping for a game with no injuries and a good weekend of football.