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Kentucky Football Bye Week Checklist

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Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

My senior year English teacher, Mr. Abell, assigned our class a book that taught me a very, very valuable lesson. Things don’t always go your way.

Sometimes, as the book’s title goes, Things Fall Apart. To summarize, the protagonist Okonkwo is a legendary warrior—a battle-winning Goliath who fears weakness and failure more than Coach K fears baldness. His fears, combined with a loss of his yams and an accidental child murder, spell his downfall. Once the leader of his tribe, things simply fell apart for Okonkwo. And things have really fallen apart for Kentucky so far.

Kentucky football is having their Okonkwo season. Terry Wilson, 13-3 bonafide starting QB, GONE. Sawyer Smith, the frisky backup, INJURED.

Having two quarterbacks sidelined, that’s like starting a road game with a pick-six! Throw in the Davonte Robinson injury, which is enormous for depth, talent, and experience reasons. Also, a few other DBs are banged up; and since the QBs are dropping like flies, the game plan is constantly re-centering on varying skill sets.

Oh, I should mention this too: UK just lost the greatest running back in school history, the greatest defensive player in school history, the greatest secondary in school history, and UK is coming off of one of the greatest seasons in school history.

That should be enough “greatests” to buy Mark Stoops some time, or even five games, sheesh. Time to rebuild and restructure his roster around the strengths of the young players, which already is a difficult task, and now is piled on top of a string of miserable injury luck.

Some seasons man, things just...fall apart. It’s a luck thing, not a “Sawyer Smith sucks” or an “Eddie Gran is a moron” or a “Stoops can’t coach” or a “Why are we playing zone instead of man” (something no UK basketball fan can say) or even a “this is so Kentucky Football” thing.

Now, I’m going to get a checklist for Kentucky football over the off-week. A list of six things in need of improvement during Kentucky Football’s bye week.

1. Get Sawyer Smith healthy

It is accepted theory that a football team’s most crucial player is its quarterback. So, in accordance with traditional Kentucky Football luck, career 13-3 starter Terry Wilson is sidelines for the remainder of the year with a torn patellar tendon. I don’t know what that is, but it means he can’t play football for a really long time. That’s just grand. But so is relying on a backup with a half-healthy right shoulder and busted up left wrist to win a road SEC game. Behind a comedy of missed throws, head-bashing turnovers and CLEAR pain, Sawyer Smith trudged through 54 minutes of agony-fraught foulness before being pulled for a wide receiver. He’s clearly hurt.

I have a rule: let’s NOT play quarterbacks who grimace with pain even when they slide. If Sawyer is biting his teeth together after sacks with the intensity of a man being electrocuted, let’s just pull him, ok? Seriously, where was the coaching staff on this one? Apparently, he is quite literally the only true QB option. I don’t care. It’s inhuman to leave Sawyer out there with multiple serious-to-semi-serious injuries only to get filleted by future first-round D-linemen. I care about Sawyer’s health more than I care about winning a football game.

This same scenario unfolded under the Stephen Johnson regime. Stephen was a corpse by the end of the 2017 season. He retired from football as a 23-year-old because his body was a mangled mess. Just don’t send Sawyer out there. The dude fought and is clearly hurt, which should shield him from fan outrage (it won’t) and he should be benched until his body is completely ready to go. So, over the break, let Smith heal up.

2. Play Lynn Bowden at QB

Last weekend, the coaching staff finally broke down and did it. They played Lynn Bowden at quarterback. If he’s the guy from here on out (please, yes, we want this), this season is an automatic mulligan, right?

You can’t assign serious expectations to a team with two injured quarterbacks and a wide receiver running the show, can you? Did you see UK’s fans last weekend? Upset as usual, even as UK’s starter watched from crutches and the backup needed horse tranquilizers to keep his throwing arm intact.

With Bowden, the expectations should simmer (they should’ve already, see my TFA rant). But the excitement should fly through the roof! Guys, we are basically playing with house money and Lynn Bowden is going to touch the ball on EVERY SINGLE PLAY. This is incredible!

A missed kick away from beating Florida led to an injury-riddled losing frenzy and now Kentucky sits with six winnable games, a treasure chest of bad juju and UK’s most dynamic playmaker at quarterback. This is an awesome offensive wrinkle, even if it doesn’t yield success on the scoreboard.

The world-class hombre who can predict when he’ll return a punt for a touchdown is getting 60 touches a game. Almost by pure math, Lynn is bound to submit two Herculean plays per game. Plus, he’s the leader of the team, by performance, by example, by mindset. YOU tell ME who was the only guy still playing his tail off late the in the fourth quarter down 24-3 last weekend. It was No. 1, the Huncho! He took over at quarterback with a fresh aggressiveness Saturday that actually made me forget the score—I was having a tiny bit of fun for the final five minutes because Lynn let me. I want that dude in my foxhole.

3. Defense: Burn redshirts or get guys healthy

You want a list of UK’s injured defensive backs, here it is:

  • Davonte Robinson, starting JR FS: OUT for the year.
  • Jordan Griffin, starting SR S: VERY LIMITED for past two games
  • Taj Dodson, backup FR S: OUT for past two games
  • Cedrick Dort, starting SO CB: OUT vs. Florida

In UK’s (not so) two-deep secondary depth chart from early August, starters have combined to miss 10.75 games once you add up those injuries and toss in now-starting safety Yusuf Corker’s three quarters missed for targeting. That was already UK’s shallowest position! We lost five defensive back to the NFL draft last season and have already lost the only two guys from last year that got serious snaps—Griffin and Robinson.

A horrifying lack of depth and inexperience limit this group from most man coverages. How can you play a six-DB set when you have four healthy DBs, one guy cramping and another rolling around on the ground gasping for air after playing 10 straight game minutes...because the offense can’t keep the D off the field and there are no backups to help my poor dude out!

Yeah, it’s an issue—not of talent or fight, two aspects I’m actually quite high on regarding this defense—but of simple math. It’s the SEC, you need quality depth everywhere, but Kentucky’s is completely hampered.

4. Commit to the running game

I have some stats for you. Here are four SEC running backs, their attempts, yards, and average yards per carry for 2019. Try to guess which ones go to Kentucky:

  • RB No. 1: 11 rushes for 99 yards, 9.0 average
  • RB No. 2: 66 rushes for 330 yards, 5.0 average
  • RB No. 3: 13 rushes for 99 yards, 7.6 average
  • RB No. 4: 46 rushes for 283 yards, 6.2 average

Despite, in some cases, a pretty small sample size, these are four strong running backs production-wise. Each have carried for a hundred yards or more this year (I’m roundin’ up) and average above five yards-per-carry. And five per attempt is a solid mark—it was Benny Snell’s average last season. SO, a few of these dudes are Kentucky backs, which I told you. I have a feeling you probably picked the right ones...because all four rushers play for Kentucky.

In order, that’s Chris Rodriguez, A.J. Rose, Lynn Bowden and Kavosiey Smoke. I know you won’t believe this but Kentucky’s rushing attack is statistically better than last season on a per-carry basis.

Essentially, when we ran the football last year during the 10-3 season with Benny Snell, the average yards gained per play is less than this year, when UK’s 2-3 team without Snell runs the football. It’s a crime that we don’t run the ball more. Falling behind early each of the past two games, on the road no less, hasn’t helped. We’re playing comeback by trying to pass our way out of a hole and we usually just keep digging deeper.

That isn’t Kentucky football under Stoops. UK’s success offensively over the past couple seasons was a direct product of a robust ground game with efficient backs and behind a world-class offensive line. The o-line is still solid. And...so is the running game, considering UK’s backs are averaging about six yards per touch—good enough to stampede down the field in a run-first scheme.

Now, UK’s offensive core is supercat Bowden at QB and should have Smoke, Rose and Rodriguez carousel-ing in the backfield. Triple option with Bowden and a pen of sturdy backs, why not? Well, even if that strategy is a little bit crazy, let’s refocus the offense around the run—which is FAR more productive this year than you and I probably realized.

5. Find a kicker

This isn’t very difficult. Chance Poore has a lower field goal percentage than Ashton Hagans. Hagans tosses basketballs into a small cylindrical hoop, Poore just has to kick a football through a 370-foot space. He misses kicks, he puts sidespin on the ball, and he flat out can not be trusted under any circumstances. If Austin MacGinnis and the existence of Saban-led Alabama have taught you anything, it’s that kickers matter. They do. Bench Poore, ride with the walk-on Matt Ruffolo.

6. Fans, calm down

Kentucky fans need to learn from Andy Dufresne. “Time and pressure. Time and pressure.” Fellas, IT TAKES TIME to built an elite football program. Last season, Kentucky boomed. UK’s best players were All-American/NFL level talents who all happened to be seniors.

Now, it’s time to cultivate the program’s talented youth, of which there is plenty. Freshman and sophomores simply don’t impact college football games very often. Give the kids time. Their two quarterbacks are out for the season and a lot of new faces are trying to wade through SEC waters for the first time.

Enjoy the peaks this year (there are a few yet to come) and watch these guys embark on their growth to stars over the next 3-4 years. Most of these dudes will be here for a few more years and many more wins, don’t burn them at the stake quite yet. That’s all I ask.