The Kentucky Wildcats got off to a 6-0 start for the first time since 1950 and are now 6-1 as the bye week is set to conclude. Despite the incredible start to the season, the Cats, just like everyone else, have their fair share of things to work on.
Let’s take a look at some improvements Kentucky can make leading up to a big road matchup against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Get more guys involved in the passing game
It’s no secret that Kentucky has ridden the backs of their big-time stars — Will Levis, Wan’Dale Robinson, and Chris Rodriguez. However, in order to finish the season 11-1 and have a shot at the Sugar Bowl, or even the College Football Playoff, UK has to get more guys involved in the passing game.
Rodriguez has been impossible to bring down so far, outside of that game against the Georgia Bulldogs defense, but the passing game could excel even further over the second half. Levis is already a budding star and him and Coen have completed changed the offensive tune of this team in just seven weeks.
While the offense isn’t struggling by any means, they definitely need to get more receivers involved, and they need some guys to step up. Robinson is obviously carrying the load so far as he’s totaled 49 receptions for 566 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Josh Ali has 17 receptions for 248 yards and a touchdown. Isaiah Epps has 10 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown. And Justin Rigg has 10 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown.
Outside of those four guys, no other receiver or tight end has topped 100 yards or double-digit catches for the season. Ali’s been out for the last couple of games, but he’s expected back for the MSU game. However, 136 of his 248 receiving yards came in the season opener.
Izayah Cummings looked like he was well on his way to becoming a star at the hybrid tight end position, but he’s injured and could miss time. There are a lot of talented younger guys, but the rest of the receivers have been pretty bad thus far. Whether it’s been dropped passes or just a failure to create separation, the Georgia game finally culminated into a showing of just how poor the talent is in the receiving room.
Robinson is a transcendent talent at wide receiver, and he’ll be gone after this season along with Ali, Rigg, and possibly Epps. In order to keep Robinson health, and better prepare for the future of the program, more guys have got to step up and become more involved.
Flip the turnover margin
Kentucky currently sits at 126th out of 130 teams in the country in turnover margin at -8. They’ve cleaned that up in recent weeks as they were even against the Florida Gators, +1 against the LSU Tigers, and even against Georgia. That’s the good news.
However, despite how good the defense has been so far this season, they’ve been horrible at forcing turnovers. The offense has gotten better about keeping the ball safe, which appears to have been an anomaly early on as Rodriguez is securing the rock and Levis isn’t just letting it loose. But the defense has got to start putting some pressure on opposing offenses, which in turn puts pressure on their defense.
The long, time-consuming drives and deep passes are fun, but it’d take so much pressure off the offense if they could start getting the ball on their side of the 50-yard line. Like I said, UK has been better in not turning the ball over in recent weeks, but they have to start forcing some turnovers now if they want to finish 11-1.
Win the hidden yardage battle and shore up the kicking game
The punting game has been much better since Collin Goodfellow took over for Wilson Berry as he’s averaging close to 10 yards more per punt. Chance Poore has done an excellent job of keeping opposing teams from returning the ball on kickoffs.
The issue with the hidden yardage battle has been that Kentucky is getting less than four yards per punt return with a long of just six yards and less than 17 yards per kickoff return with a long of just 25 yards. That’s not good.
Opponents are averaging over 5 yards per punt return and have a long of 13 yards to go. As mentioned above, Poore has only allowed three kickoff returns on the season, which has only resulted in 42 yards—25 of which came on one returns.
For the punt returns, part of this is due to Robinson not being comfortable back there, which he mentioned on a podcast recently, but the other part is that there doesn't appear to be anyone else ready to take over. Moreover, Zach Johnson is trustworthy on kick returns, but he isn't biggest or fastest, and it’s doubtful he’s going to break away.
As the differences in yardage aren't huge, the third phase of the game can win or lose football games. Think about Lynn Bowden taking back punt returns against the Missouri Tigers and Penn State Nittany Lions in 2018. Those were game changers.
As for the kicking game, Kentucky has had field goals blocked against Missouri and Georgia, while having extra points blocked against Florida and Georgia. Matt Ruffolo has been very good, but he’s gotten into a habit of kicking the ball very low and the interior offensive line is getting pushed around. Something’s got to change.
In a close game, these blocked kicks could be the difference in a win or loss. It could be the difference between the Sugar Bowl or the Citrus Bowl.
More playing time for the younger guys
The Cats are set to lose a lot after this season, including up to three starters on the offensive line, Robinson, Ali, Epps, Rigg, possibly Levis, up to two starters on the defensive line, both middle linebackers, and two starters in the secondary. Yeah, that’s a lot.
That means that while winning is of utmost importance in the second half, so is getting some playing time for the younger guys. There are at least two blowouts left on the schedule—the Vanderbilt Commodores and the New Mexico State Aggies—but there’s also some tough games—on the road against MSU and the Louisville Cardinals and at home against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Kentucky can’t afford to have another letdown like they did against Chattanooga. They’re going to have to get out to a big, early lead and let some of the younger guys take over. Some of these guys have already been forced to play due to injuries, like Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes, but getting Beau Allen along with some offensive linemen and wide receivers more PT is imperative.
Close on the big recruits left on the board
Finally, this isn't directly related to the play of the 2021 Kentucky Football team, but it is an important focus for the second half of the season as it will directly affect the program in the future.
Kentucky is poised to possibly land its best recruiting class in history. There are a lot of big names left on the recruiting board, including four stars Aamil Wagner (brother of Ahmad Wagner), Dane Key (who is likely announcing for UK on October 28th) Deone Walker, and Barion Brown. These are program-changing types of recruits, and it’s possible UK lands all four.
If they are able to finish out the class with these four, among other, Kentucky could quite possibly end up with a top-10 recruiting class...in football. Yes, you read that correctly. And while Stoops has done an excellent job with lesser talented players, closing the talent gap between Kentucky and the upper-echelon of the SEC would only make the Cats more dangerous in the future.
It’s time for Kentucky to make some improvements and get ready to finish out the second half of the season strong. 11-1 is very much on the table, but making some of these changes could be imperative in doing so.