I forgot to set my DVR for the game Saturday night, and the re-airing that I recorded ended up being the heavily edited version. In addition to my recording failings, real-life obligations have also struck, so there won't be a detailed edition of "Upon Further Review" this week. Instead, this edition will be more general in nature after giving my thoughts some time to marinate. Please add your own general thoughts. These are by no means comprehensive
Za'Darius Smith probably played the best game since he's been at UK Saturday night. He and Bud Dupree got the best of Florida's offensive tackles on passing downs, and held serve on running downs. This group does an excellent job using their hands to prevent linemen from blocking them which is a reflection of Jimmy Brumbaugh's coaching. Jason Hatcher also saw the most meaningful action yet of his career, and played well shedding blockers and making tackles.
There's been steady improvement from Melvin Lewis and Mike Douglas on the interior as well. When blocked by one man they typically held serve, but when double teamed they were usually beat by Florida's linemen. That's going to be normal most of the time, but it should highlight these players aren't elite. Florida rushed for 240 yards and other SEC teams will too this season. Rush defense will continue to be a weakness.
Another reason rush defense will continue to be a vulnerability is UK's linebackers are built to run on the edge, blitz, and cover running backs and inside receivers. While they are pretty good at that, they aren't traditional run-stopping linebackers who can regularly shed a lead block and still make a play for a loss.
Josh Forrest continues to play well at middle linebacker, and after another season in Erik Korem's S&C program he could be a great linebacker. Khalid Henderson and Ryan Flannigan take turns swapping out on every other series so far. The coaches must like Flannigan, but I feel more comfortable when Henderson's on the field. Flannigan is still taking some poor angles, but fewer than he was against UT-Martin. He's also small and will have issues shedding blockers.
This position probably had the worst roster management under Joker, and that's saying something.
This is a pretty good group, and I think the coaches know it. UK playing more man coverage with little to no back-end support against Florida's spread implies the confidence Mark Stoops has in this group. Florida passed for 295 yards but 215 of those yards went to Demarcus Robinson (and 202 of those yards came in the first three quarters - the coaches and secondary adjusted). That's somewhat troubling, but with UK playing so much single coverage, coupled with heavy blitzing, some of that production is inevitable with a good receiver like Robinson. Importantly, his teammates did not have big nights.
All four starters and their key back-ups have improved (Tiller is playing very well). They are tackling well in space, and have improved their ball skills. If a receiver does get open on them, they are limiting the important yards after the catch. That's crucial.
AJ Stamps' ability to quickly cover ground in the back helps the entire operation. The option to blitz with most of them again expresses confidence in risking coverage vulnerabilities for big pay-offs. It also demonstrates their new abilities to cover more ground quicker. The secondary has already blitzed more times in three games than they did all of last season.
Overall Defensive Thoughts
I wondered last week if this defense was being underrated. There's better tackling and coverage on display, but stopping the run probably continues to be the Achilles ' heel. I told Alligator Army leading into the game that this defense is not in the first tier in the SEC, but has a real shot to finish the year in the middle of the pack. I think Saturday's performance supports that theory.
The beauty of this defense is its versatility. 7-8 players are capable of covering offensive skill players, and possible outside of Cody Quinn, they will all be blitzed at some point. This defense has pure speed, and if they get an offense behind the chains they can reliably get third down stops. Been a while since I've felt that way about a UK defense.
Darrian Miller did not look great against Dante Fowler Jr. ,but to be fair most linemen would not. Besides Fowler wreaking havoc, though, UK largely controlled Florida's pass rush. Running the ball remains an issue as UK only managed a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. Florida has a great defense, but it's going to be hard to win games when not effectively running the ball.
The interior of the line is improved from last year, but remains a work in progress. One of the reasons Fowler was moved to blitz up the middle in the second half, I believe, is due to Florida's coaches recognizing the vulnerabilities there. Florida limited UK's running game with only 6 defenders in the box at times which further suggests the weakness in this area. UK's receivers could make even more plays if UK forced 7 or 8 defenders in the box.
I'm impressed with all of them. Braylon Heard has lived up to his expectation as have the two blue-chip freshmen. In the first two games, Jojo Kemp has the most yards after contact of any of UK's backs. These four are also all capable of making big plays as they've demonstrated.
They are playing very well. UK's game plan from half-time on was chuck it deep and challenge Florida's secondary, and they were successful doing so. UK was picking on Florida's defensive backs, and they even had the confidence to challenge Vernon Hargreaves numerous times. This unit is completely different from last year's, and UK was a Ryan Timmons catch away from setting UK up for a long field goal at the end of regulation. Amazing.
Not only is senior Demarco Robinson playing the best he ever has for UK, but the freshmen have quickly adjusted to the college game. That was an open question heading into the Florida game, but Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson, and Dorian Baker all acquitted themselves well. Ryan Timmon's two drops may have prevented two eventual UK field goals, but he helps far more than hurts. This group hasn't been healthy this year yet, and last year's biggest play-maker, Javess Blue, hasn't played any meaningful time except early against UT-Martin.
I'm going to write specifically about this unit soon, so I'll save additional thoughts for later.
There was once a quarterback competition? Patrick Towles also played his best game yet against Florida throwing for 370 yards. One of his interceptions was a poor decision, but arguably you could place the blame for the other two on the receivers. We know he's got a live arm, and can scramble when need be, but more impressive was his management of the game plan. He read Florida's blitzes and hit his "hot" route on several occasions. He also managed the clock properly in the final two minutes of the first half wisely getting out of bounds to stop the clock.
Overall Offensive Thoughts
This offense is potent and explosive plays are possible from the running back, receiver, and quarterback positions. The offensive line has improved, but would probably still not rate in the SEC's top 7-9 offensive lines. The inability to consistently run the ball will hurt UK at times this season. UK largely avoided negative plays against Florida's defense, but if negative plays occur along with a poor running game this offense will be stressed.
On the bright side, this offense is only set to lose two receivers and an offensive tackle after this season. It's still very young and could be even better next season.
Landon Foster is averaging 43 yards per punt which is decent compared to other SEC East punters. What is important, though, is teams are not getting the opportunity to return many punts because of his punts hang time. Last season Foster regressed a bit, but he seems back to his freshman season form.
Austin MacGinness is playing very well for a freshman kicker. He hit several high pressure field goals against Florida including a 51 yarder to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Not only that, but he had to kick it twice due to a penalty. Stoops has said he's got ice water in his veins, and he's been proven correct. MacGinness missed three field goals now, which prevents him from being a "great" weapon, but he plays above the mean for freshmen kickers.
The coverage and return teams have been solid. UK gave up a big return against Florida, but they will do that to most teams given their athletes. MacGinniss meanwhile regularly boots it into the end zone limiting a lot of big plays. The return teams has done nothing remarkable nor awful.
The degree of improvement from Year One to Year Two has surprised me. The players have been transformed in the weight room, and improved their fundamentals on the practice field. Most impressive to me is the change in culture that has taken place. It was evident in the post-game comments that the players weren't satisfied with a moral victory (the right stance for players and coaches), and are ready to get back on the field and improve.
I also think with Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot overseeing the defense UK will rarely ever be out-schemed by an opposing offense. They continue to impress me, and as I've said previously, I love the job Brumbaugh has done with the defensive line. Also, much of the credit for the secondary's transformation should go to coach Derrick Ansley too.
I know some don't like Neal Brown's play-calling but I don't see any problem with it. Last year he admits he tried to get too cute and win by scheme rather than fundamentals. Part of the reason he had to do that was because of personnel. This season he's got play-makers and they are living up to their billing. The offense put up 450 yards against a Will Muschamp defense. Last season Florida's defense held UK to 7 points and 173 yards. Stoops has said Neal Brown's offense was the hardest scheme for him to stop as a defensive coordinator. I think I know what he means.
2014 Outlook One Quarter Through The Season
UK is an "under-the-radar" team that will be tricky for future opponents though probably won't be favored most Saturdays. UK's offense will challenge South Carolina and Georgia's defenses in CWS. UK's defensive line and blitzing will probably challenge UofL and UT's offensive lines and quarterbacks in late November. If UK isn't intimidated to play in The Swamp, I think they'll be ready for Columbia, Baton Rouge or hosting Mississippi State.
How Florida does this Saturday against Alabama could also be instructive about UK's abilities during its bye week. Ohio did UK no favors getting blown out by Marshall on Saturday.
An unheralded factor is the players seem to truly believe they should upset a few teams this year. That's an immeasurable, but potentially, as important factor as any listed. Faith can move mountains as they say. If UK prepares during the week like they believe it, then they will have opportunities to pick up SEC wins on Saturdays.
The program is trending upwards on the back of excellent coaching and promising recruiting. Buy low now.