A win is a win. It is hard to be too negative following a road victory against a team that bested the Cats the year prior. However, there are players and position groups that showed there is plenty of work remaining if Stoops and company are going to get this group to where many fans think they can go.
There were certainly some stand-out performers who are probably receiving less attention than the “losers” on this list, but that’s the way it usually goes after a pretty blah debut, especially given the fans’ anticipation and positive buzz the Cats have garnered throughout the preseason.
Anyway, let’s take a look at who raised their stock and who needs to prove their worth next weekend against EKU.
Winner: Special Teams
Maybe the punting situation isn't so bad after all? After a hugely depressing performance last season by Grant McKinniss, we may be on our way to reclaiming our reputation as “Punter U”. In 9 punts, Ivy League transfer Matt Panton averaged a respectable 42 yards per. Despite difficulties moving the ball, Kentucky led quite comfortably in the field position war, which is a significant reason as to why I never felt truly threatened that the Eagles were going to mount a comeback even when we led by only one score (and a 19 to 12 first down advantage favoring USM). I don’t want to overreact to Panton’s one game in blue, but it is pretty encouraging given what we endured last season.
Additionally, MacGinnis knocked down all of his extra point attempts and his one field goal try from 41 yards. Backup runner Siheim King looked as comfortable as ever returning kicks, averaging 35 yards in two tries. His 46 yard return was impressive (and aided greatly by a textbook block down the field by Kash Daniel), and, if not for a face mask, would have set the Cats up past midfield. Color me surprised if King doesn't house one at some point this season.
Loser: Play Calling
Look, I get it. You don't want to reveal too much against Southern Miss with much bigger foes looming on the horizon. I also get that I’m not a football coach. That said, Saturday’s play calling was uninspired and a reason why the Eagles were able to hang around as long as they did. To begin with, there were a few too many runs on 3rd and medium for my taste. If Stephen Johnson is really the man, then show some confidence in his ability to move the sticks! Early on, I chalked-up the sheepish play calling as a setup for play action later, in the game’s more pivotal moments. It never really came. Hopefully next week we see more of Johnson in space with a more creative scheme tailored for his athleticism. I’m all for conservative offense given the situation, but Saturday kind of pushed that limit for me.
I don’t have that much to say regarding the Wildcat offense except that I don't think relying on the gimmick is going to make this team much better in the short or long term. The Cats have seen moderate success with it in the past under Jojo Kemp, but when you tell the defense that you're running the ball as soon as you line up, you’re giving them a bit of an advantage, no? The Wildcat is a dynamic set when there is the threat of multiple runners or maybe even a pass (e.g. Ronnie Brown, 2008 Dolphins). The Kentucky version of the Wildcat is simply one dimensional. To me, it all goes back to having confidence in the quarterback, and if Week One is any indication, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Coach Stoops aren't comfortable handing the keys of the offense to Johnson just yet.
Winner: C.J. Conrad
That is what Kentucky fans have been waiting for out of C.J. Conrad! From the moment of his commitment, we’ve known the Cats have a special player in the athletic tight end. Kentucky’s struggle throwing the ball short and towards the middle of the field last year hurt Conrad maybe more than anyone, but he was still able to prove his worth as a pass catcher and blocker. Take away his standout 133 yard performance against New Mexico last season and he only caught for 129 yards in ten games. With uncertainty in the receiving corps, Conrad looks to already be a bigger emphasis in the offense. Kentucky was able to get him the ball twice by sneaking him down the seam and dumping the ball to him with room in the middle of the field. The junior caught 3 balls for 97 yards, a touchdown, and the single biggest yardage gain of the game. You hope that your leading receiver isn't a tight end by year’s end, but all looks good so far for number 87.
Huge catch and run by C.J. Conrad. pic.twitter.com/TR4xGZVenX— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 2, 2017
Follow @Scott_Charlton on Twitter for timely highlights of UK sports.
Loser: Chris Westry
I still have the utmost confidence in Kentucky’s secondary and Chris Westry’s outlook for this season. That still doesn't save him from being a loser in this column. Westry is a solid player and a big reason that the secondary is considered Kentucky’s greatest asset along with the offensive line (I’ll get to them shortly). After a stellar freshman season, he’s watched fellow junior Derrick Baity ascend to become the Cats’ top corner while perhaps leaving some of his own potential unfulfilled. Stoops still needs solid and physical play from the 6’4” super-athlete for this team to slow down high powered offenses like Missouri and Miss State.
Westry gambled on a ball that wound up as a long completion for USM and missed a tackle that allowed USM receiver Korey Robertson to prance 26 yards for the last touchdown of the game. Upon rewatching the game, Westry found himself out of position on plays that became receptions and on some that didn't, partially because he was seeking to make a splash-play. At other times, he seemed a step slow when closing in on the receiver upon the ball’s release. I’ll give credit where it’s due, as he made a nice strip that should be acknowledged resulting in a Courtney Love recovery. I’m not quite worried about Westry going forward, but I’m looking for him to gain some momentum in what should be an easy win this weekend against the team from forty minutes down the road.
Winner: Defensive Line
A lot was made about Kentucky’s defensive line this season. What has been perceived as the weakness of the defensive unit held very strong in the season opener. In 38 tries, USM could only muster a measly 55 yards on the ground against the Cats. Denzel Ware logged a sack and another tackle for loss, in addition making to the biggest play of the game where being in the right place at the right time produced an easy seven for the Boys in Blue (or white, more precisely).
Matt Elam had a great game in honor of Greg McElroy; one of the better games of his career in fact. He showed better burst off the line, generated penetration in a couple of passing situations, and clogged the A gaps to make 4 tackles. While not necessarily linemen, praise goes to Josh Allen for making what seems like a hundred plays in the backfield and to freshman Josh Paschal for laying the wood on the goal line. I could make the entire front seven a winner here, but after all of the singling out the defensive line received this offseason, it seems only right that they’re singled out here after a helluva first showing.
Loser: Offensive Line
It sure would have been nice to see what is a truly deep and talented offensive line show up ready to play against a team they ought to dominate. Eddie Gran gave them plenty of opportunity to control the trenches, calling 35 rushes and more than 10 coming from the Wildcat. As mentioned above, running a predictable Wildcat offense can work, given the personnel on the line. You can all but tell the defense where you're running the ball and it won't matter if the hogs are blazing the path. Runs were stuffed early and often, and while Bennie Snell didn't have his best game, there was only so much he could do. As surprising as it was that we only allowed USM to run for 55 yards, it is just as surprising that the Cats couldn't generate more than 2.7 yards per carry of their own.
The pass protection held up fine, giving up only one sack, but the sample size here isn't quite enough to project how they’ll hold up come conference play. Stephen Johnson did well getting the ball out in a timely manner, and the play calling was too run heavy to expect USM to commit strongly to the edge rush. So in terms of holding the pocket, they get a TBD from me here.
It is worth noting that there was a lot of moving around on the line, with Kyle Meadows moving from left to right tackle early on and George Asafo-Adjei shifting from right tackle to right guard in the same process. It is nice to have the quality depth that the Cats are blessed with up front, but I’d like to see guys start owning their spots and O-Line Coach John Schlarman finding his best combination in the near future. Assuming Bunchy Stallings is healthy (he returned from injury near the end of the game), I’d project the left side of the line to consist of Young–Stenburg–Stallings (tackle to center) more often than not.
The right side saw a lot of personnel movement, which hopefully gets clarified before conference play. Is Meadows or Asafo-Adjei the right tackle going forward, or are they going to continue to man the right side by committee along with Mason Wolfe? Who knows, but if they struggle to open running lanes against EKU on Saturday, I’d expect to see some changes from how the rotation currently operates. I’ll go on the record and predict a reassuring turn-around from the line and Bennie, who I think runs for 120+ yards this coming Saturday.