IT’S FOOTBALL TIME IN THE BLUEGRASS… or it will be in less than a week’s time. Kentucky has been riding a recent wave of optimism the past few weeks. Several ESPN pundits predicted the Cats will go bowling for the first time in six seasons.
Who knows? They may be right.
In a pivotal fourth year for Mark Stoops, UK still has plenty to worry about. Will Drew Barker produce? Will the receivers be consistent options? Can Matt Elam become a force? All are valid things to wonder until we have seen action.
But, my biggest concern heading into the season is simple…tackling. I know, right? I usually spew out numbers and stats to back up my opinions; not in this case.
One of the biggest weaknesses of Kentucky’s defense the past few seasons has been generating a pass rush and tackling in space. Not being able to do either results in opposing offenses sustaining long drives, which wear defenses down over the course of four quarters.
Last year showed countless examples of how UK’s defense failed to win hidden yardage battles. Thanks to the SEC Network, we can relive the tactless tackling of last year’s Cats. And throughout the Spring and Summer Camp, reports say that has not gotten any better.
Sound tackling teams control ball games. When the first man on the scene is able to consistently bring down the ball carrier at the point of contact, the offensive gain is kept to a minimal. But if two, three, four defenders are needed, offenses are able to not only keep defenses off balance but also keep their drives manageable. Calling 2nd-short is different from calling 2nd-long as is 3rd down.
UK has really struggled to win in space. That is probably more up to talent than it is to tactics considering the overall roster Stoops inherited. After all, putting someone in the right spot only goes so far.
A thin and green front seven will be asked to grow up quick and be ready to go against a prolific offense that likes to spread it around. To our chagrin, Shannon Dawson ran a good number of screens and draws as UK’s Offensive Coordinator last season. Though a conservative approach, it forces defenses to be sound players in space. I fully expect So. Miss to implement this into their game plan to force UK to tackle not only inside the box but also outside the numbers. If So. Miss’s backs run over the Cats, it will be a long season especially once SEC play begins. By winning the hidden yardage battle, UK will force its opponents to become more predictable. Not saying that tackling will solve all of Kentucky’s problems, but it will help minimize some. Not being able to tackle, however, will certainly amplify the Cats’ mistakes.
We have seen how missed tackles can be the difference between going to a bowl or finishing 5-7. It’s a game of inches. And I am concerned this will be UK’s undoing once again.