Kentucky preview: A lack of horses in the middle of horse country

 

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 7, 2013

 

Mark Stoops is facing the same task that literally every Kentucky coach has faced since Paul “Bear” Bryant left for Texas A&M long ago: rebuilding.

 

Were it not for Bryant’s success at Kentucky, one could argue that the current UK staff is actually building, not rebuilding. Kentucky hasn’t been a legitimate threat in the SEC since that time. There were some isolated bright spots over the years – Hal Mumme’s early seasons, Jerry Claiborne’s 9-3 campaign in 1984, the fundamentally sound and overachieving teams of Rich Brooks – but for the most part, Kentucky has played the role of Washington Generals to the Harlem Globetrotters of Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.

 

Time will tell if Stoops is the coach to finally buck this trend. His initial season started poorly with a loss to the Sun Belt’s Western Kentucky, itself a team in transition under a new head coach. But Kentucky has been competitive in its last three games against better teams – Louisville, Florida and South Carolina. All, however, have ended in losses.

 

Alabama doesn’t come into this game at 100-percent strength. The Crimson Tide is without its starting center and strong safety, and other key players have been nicked up or otherwise ineffective. But Alabama would have to completely overlook this game to be in any danger.

 

OFFENSE

 

It’s not immediately clear what the Kentucky offense will look like against Alabama. A lot has to do with which quarterback goes under center, which we’ll touch on in the Quarterbacks section. What is known is that Stoops prefers a tempo-driven offense based on the air-raid passing attack Hal Mumme ran in the 90s, and Texas Tech runs now. So Alabama can expect to see a lot of no-huddle, wideouts all over the field and a running game used as occasional filler. Kentucky ranks 84th in total offense in the moment, and 71st in both rushing and passing offense, which is evidence of a work in progress. Alabama brings its multiple pro-style attack to this game. Consistency has been Alabama’s greatest enemy this year; the Crimson Tide looked superb against Texas A&M, lackadaisical against Colorado State and Virginia Tech, and mediocre versus Ole Miss. The Tide carries a total offense ranking of 70th to Lexington, and sits 69th in rushing offense and 62nd in passing offense. But the Tide’s rushing game is far more potent than Kentucky’s, which has come more from QB scrambles than anything else at this point.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Maxwell Smith started the year for Kentucky, but has given way to Jalen Whitlow over the past two games. The two couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. Outside of sacks, Smith has run 1 time for 8 yards. Whitlow? He’s Kentucky’s leading rusher, with 238 yards and 3 touchdowns on 46 carries. For passing numbers, Whitlow leads in completion percentage, 67.6% to 57.9% for Smith, but he’s thrown for only 499 yards on 50 completions. It’s rare to see a quarterback average 6.74 yards per attempt; it’s almost unheard of to see one average less than 10 yards per completion. Against Alabama, look for Whitlow to start, but it would not be a surprise to see both players. Alabama will start A.J. McCarron, who isn’t putting up earth-shattering numbers, but who once again is looking like the picture of consistency. Alabama’s quarterbacks rank 15th in the nation in passing efficiency, with backup Blake Sims actually outpacing McCarron in the stat at the moment. Despite Kentucky being an air-raid team, McCarron has thrown for almost as many yards as both Kentucky quarterbacks combined. Sims’ work in relief of McCarron against Georgia State showed that the backup situation might not be as dire as many Alabama fans thought. Whitlow is a player to watch for the future, but McCarron is the quarterback to watch right now. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

Like many pass-happy, spread-style teams, Kentucky employs running backs smaller than the average SEC size. True freshman Jojo Kemp goes about 5’10”, 185, and has settled into the starting role over 5’8” sprite Raymond Sanders. Kemp has been very effective, toting the ball 33 times for 226 yards (6.8 avg.), but he’s yet to score. Sanders has carried 38 times for 183 yards (4.8 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. The aforementioned Whitlow is the team’s leading rusher, gaining 5.2 yards per carry even with sack yardage figured. When Kentucky needs a bigger back, senior Jonathan George (16 carries, 49 yards, 3.1 avg., 1 TD) is called upon. The rest of the Wildcat rushing attack goes mostly through wide receivers on jet sweeps and other trickery. Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon (72 carries, 445 yards, 6.2 avg., 4 TD) and Kenyan Drake (27 carries, 192 yards, 7.1 avg., 3 TD). The principal difference between them and Kentucky’s running backs is that Alabama’s backs are capable of moving the pile and making yardage even with the defense is expecting the run. Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny add depth. Neither team uses a full-time fullback, although Alabama can use Fowler to fill the role. Kentucky uses D.J. Warren and Cody Jones for the same purpose, although unlike Fowler, neither has touched the ball yet. Kemp will eventually join the ranks of Jeff Scott and Ben Malena as good spread running backs in the SEC, but Alabama is deeper and more talented. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

JUCO transfer Javess Blue (22 catches, 275 yards, 12.5 avg., 1 TD) has filled a hole for the Kentucky offense quickly, although he still has steps to take before being a feared playmaker. The other two positions are filled by true freshmen Ryan Timmons (19 catches, 209 yards, 11.0 avg., 1 TD) and Jeff Badet (7 catches, 125 yards, 17.9 avg., 1 TD). Size is an issue for all three; the tallest (Blue) is 6’0”. Kentucky’s tallest receiver is 6’2” true freshman Alexander Montgomery, who is averaging 8.5 yards on 12 catches so far. Holdovers Demarco Robinson, A.J. Legree and Daryl Collins round out the unit. The Wildcats will use as many as five tight ends in the game, with Jordan Aumiller, Anthony Kendrick and Ronnie Shields the most frequently utilized. Only Kendrick is a consistent receiving threat (6 catches, 118 yards, 19.7 avg., 0 TD). Alabama will start some combination of Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Amari Cooper. Jones and White lead the team statistically. The rest are a solid supporting group, but Cooper remains a mystery in 2013, as he was expected to be the star of the position. O.J. Howard may be on the verge of supplanting Brian Vogler at tight end; both will play along with blocking specialist Brandon Greene and H-back Jalston Fowler. While the newcomers have made Kentucky a more respectable team, all five of Alabama’s main group would start over any Wildcat receiver, and while Kentucky has more depth at tight end, the Wildcats don’t have a threat like Howard in the group. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Kentucky has weaknesses all over the offense, and the line is no exception. Losing Larry Warford and Matt Smith after 2012 put the Cats behind the 8-ball, even with three starters returning. Darrian Miller and Kevin Mitchell return to start at left tackle and right guard, but last year’s starter at left guard, Zach West, has played just sporadically in 2013 after suffering an injury this spring. Freshman Zach Myers, expected to start at center, has missed the last four games with an injury as well. Jordan Swindle will start at right tackle, with Jon Toth and Max Godby replacing West and Myers. Teven Eatmon-Nared gives Kentucky some experience off the bench, but depth beyond Eatmon-Nared is slim. John Gruenschlaeger and Shaquille Love may also see action. Provided there isn’t a change at right tackle, Alabama will start Chad Lindsay at center, flanked by guards Arie Kouandjio and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd. True freshman Grant Hill saw playing time against Georgia State and might get more work at right tackle this week. Senior Kellen Williams figures to be the top backup everywhere else, although Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor will also back up the guard positions and Leon Brown the tackle positions. Kentucky has allowed more sacks than Alabama, and Alabama has also been more assertive in the running game. Alabama is also deeper, and despite the loss of Ryan Kelly, is healthier than the Wildcats. And frankly, since neither line has looked like gangbusters yet, we’d take Alabama based on potential alone. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

Kentucky and Alabama both utilize a multiple defense. Alabama’s base is a 3-4 over/under, but the Crimson Tide plays most of its snaps in nickel these days thanks to the advent of spread offenses, and will likely do so again Saturday. Kentucky’s base is a 4-3, although the Wildcats have used 3-, 4- and even 5-man fronts. As expected, the Wildcats have struggled in pass defense (101st in pass efficiency defense, although the Cats are 24th in raw pass defense); what wasn’t expected is Kentucky’s struggles against the run (98th). If Alabama took out the game against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide’s numbers would improve significantly, but they’re already better than Kentucky’s (6th in rush defense, 44th in raw pass defense and 38th in efficiency defense). Alabama has given up only 1 touchdown to a team not based out of College Station, Texas.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble give Kentucky two solid inside players, although rush defense numbers have yet to show it. Both players have struggled to get penetration, with Cobble not yet making a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Kentucky has actually done its damage off the corner, where Bud Dupree and Z’Darius Smith have combined for 7.5 sacks. True freshman Jason Hatcher has added another and is showing signs that he can live up to his impressive recruiting rep. The Wildcats have reasonable depth, as Tristian Johnson and Mike Douglas provide quality off the bench, while Alvin Davis Jr. and Farrington Huguenin back up the end positions along with Malcolm McDuffen. Alabama will start Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and either Jeoffrey Pagan or A’Shawn Robinson at end. Pagan was held out of the Georgia State game due to a minor injury, but is expected back this week. Jonathan Allen, LaMichael Fanning and Anthony Orr round out the depth chart on the outside, while Darren Lake and Korren Kirven fill in at tackle. Kentucky has fared better rushing the passer, but relative to potential, Alabama is performing better so far in 2013. This could be close, though, if the Wildcats do a better job of executing in this game than in their previous five. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

Kentucky is solid in the middle with senior Avery Williamson, but the rest of this unit has been iffy. Kentucky moved defensive end TraVaughn Paschal to outside linebacker, which helped a bit with the pass rush. Paschal operates like Alabama’s Jack linebackers, often replacing a defensive end in the scheme. The other outside position has been in flux, with Khalid Henderson and Miles Simpson both getting work there. Neither has made much of an impact thus far. Tyler Brause, Josh Forrest and Malcolm McDuffen, who can also play end, are the other reserves. Alabama will play C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest inside, with some mixture of Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard at the Jack and strongside positions. Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster will back up the inside positions, while Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee and Tim Williams will get work outside. If Williamson played for Alabama, there’s a chance he could beat out DePriest, but the best player on the field is Alabama’s Mosley and the Tide’s outside linebacker group is preferable to Kentucky’s. Kentucky is trying to make defensive ends work on the outside of a 4-3 scheme right now, which is difficult at best to do. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Both teams started the season in rebuilding mode, but Alabama found true freshman cornerback Eddie Jackson two games ago and his emergence has solidified the Tide secondary in a big way. Alabama will be without safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix for this game as he serves out a suspension, but even with Clinton-Dix out, this is a big edge for Alabama. Deion Belue and Jackson will start at the corners, with Vinnie Sunseri at safety. Look for Alabama to be in nickel or dime almost all day, with Geno Smith, Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams replacing Clinton-Dix and filling out the nickel and dime slots. Bradley Sylve, John Fulton and Maurice Smith could also see playing time at corner. Kentucky has one top-level safety, Ashely Lowery, and a lot of question marks. The only other certainty is sophomore Fred Tiller at cornerback; the other two positions are still up in the air. Cody Quinn is the likely starter at the off corner position, while Eric Dixon, Daron Blaylock, Glenn Faulkner and true freshman Blake McClain figure to start at safety and nickel. Freshmen Marcus McWilson and Jaleel Hytchye are in the mix at corner and safety, while JUCO transfer Nate Willis will get work at corner and nickel. Despite Alabama’s issues, and even the absence of Clinton-Dix, things are much more settled in Tuscaloosa. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Joe Mansour has missed an extra point, but not yet a field goal, although he hasn’t attempted one from 40 yards or beyond. Punting has been a sore spot for Kentucky; Landon Foster is averaging right at 40 yards per kick, but the Wildcat coverage teams have conspired to land the Cats a ranking of 108th in net punting. Kickoff units are a better story; Kentucky and Alabama rank almost equal in both returns and coverage. Where this turns is on the kickers. Cade Foster is building a resume as a respectable placekicker with good range, but punter Cody Mandell barely has an equal in the league. Mandell is averaging 46.7 yards per punt and can throw darts on short punting opportunities. Kentucky isn’t bad on special teams; Alabama has just been better. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in all eight categories. The Tide DL wins the matchup with the Kentucky OL, but the opposite matchup of Kentucky DL to Alabama OL is a push at best. If Kentucky plays to potential, that matchup would swing to the Wildcats.

 

The issue here for Kentucky is simply one of numbers. Alabama has more good players, more player capable of contributing, and more players that can do more things than do the Wildcats. It’s not an issue that will solve itself in a single week, or even a single year. The Mark Stoops staff must recruit its way out of this problem, and by the time they do that, Alabama will have rotated off the Kentucky schedule.

 

This is not a terrible Kentucky team, but it’s not a good one, either. This is an average-on-its-best-day SEC team that will frequently be less than average for the remainder of 2013. Stoops has this team probably playing over its head at the moment, even though the results haven’t shown up on the W-L sheet.

 

If things go to plan, this will be another game in which Blake Sims finishes the game handing off to freshman running backs in order to kill the clock. Kentucky is improving, but the Wildcats have a long way to go before they can challenge Alabama.

 

Alabama 41

Kentucky 14

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