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Florida Football

Behind Enemy Lines: Scouting Kentucky

September 11, 2019
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The No. 9 Gators’ road to Atlanta begins on Saturday night when they open SEC play at the Kentucky Wildcats (2-0).

As we do each week, here are three positions of strength, three positions of weakness and three players to watch for from Kentucky.

Three Positions of Strength

Running Back

Despite losing Benny Snell, who holds the school’s career records for rushing yards, total touchdowns, rushing touchdowns and 100-yard games, the Wildcats still boast one of the league’s most dangerous tailback tandems. That’s a testament to the great job coach Mark Stoops and running backs coach Eddie Gran have done of evaluating, recruiting and developing at the position. They rank fifth in the conference with 207.5 rushing yards per game. Starter Asim Rose is more of the power back. He’s carried the ball 33 times for 146 yards and two scores. The No. 2 guy, redshirt freshman Kavosiey Smoke, looks like the next superstar at UK. He’s just 5-foot-9, but he’s an explosive runner. He’s rushed for 170 yards and a pair of scores on 18 carries (9.4 yards-per-carry).

Offensive Line

Of course, those holes for Rose and Smoke don’t open themselves. The Wildcats boast a talented and experienced group of linemen. Left tackle Landon Young was a rare five-star signee for UK in 2016. He started six games in 2017 but suffered an injury in August 2018 that kept him out all of last season. Left guard Logan Stenberg has made 28 starts at the same position. Drake Jackson has started 22 consecutive games, the last 19 at center. The other two starters, right guard Luke Fortner and right tackle Darian Kinnard, appeared in a combined 20 games last season. They’ve given up just three sacks through the first two games.

Special Teams

This might not be the most glamorous part of the game, but UK’s prowess could be a weapon for them. They’ve made 121 straight extra points, the ninth longest streak in the nation. Their 49.78-yard net punt average ranks third in the country. Kicker Chance Poore is 2-for-3 to start the season, with his only miss from 49 yards. They’re third in the conference in kickoff returning with a 24.8-yard average. They’re averaging a healthy 11.3 yards on punt returns. Both programs pride themselves on excellent special teams play, so this matchup should be one to watch.

Three Positions of Weakness

Quarterback

This position would probably be a weakness even if Terry Wilson was healthy, so it’s definitely a weakness without him. Wilson suffered a torn patellar tendon in his left knee in the Wildcats’ 38-17 defeat of Eastern Michigan last week. His replacement, Sawyer Smith, probably throws a better deep ball, but he’s not as athletic, so that could hamper what they like to do in the running game. He put up good numbers last season at Troy, starting seven games and throwing for 1,669 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was named the MVP of the Dollar General Bowl after he completed 31 of 44 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 191 yards and a score. Unfortunately for him, SEC defenses are a little bit better than Sun Belt defenses. The new top backup, Walker Wood, has yet to appear in a game in his career.

Defensive Back

Against two MAC teams, Kentucky surrendered an average of 251.5 passing yards per game, 13th in the conference. Like the Gators, UK’s secondary has only intercepted one pass through the first two games. Things won’t get any easier for them on Saturday, as the Gators will roll out their deep collection of skill position players. Florida hasn’t had much success running the ball but is fourth in the league in passing. When Feleipe Franks has gotten in trouble, it’s usually been because of turnovers. UK’s secondary hasn’t proven that they can take the ball away yet.

Tight End

The Wildcats are still trying to figure out life without C.J. Conrad. Conrad was named to the Mackey Award Watch List three times and was named Preseason All-SEC prior to his junior and senior seasons. He totaled 80 career catches for 1,015 yards and 12 touchdowns. Through the first two games of 2019, new starter Justin Rigg has made one reception for nine yards. The No. 2 tight end, Keaton Upshaw, has made four catches for 38 yards. Florida’s struggled to cover tight ends in recent years, but Kentucky doesn’t seem to have the personnel to exploit that.

Three Players to Watch

Running Back Kavosiey Smoke

UF’s biggest weakness on defense so far has been tackling in the open field, especially against smaller, shiftier players. The Gators lost last year’s meeting in large part because they couldn’t get Snell on the ground. Smoke fits that mold. He’s a threat to pop an 80-yarder every time he touches the ball if the Gators don’t tackle well. They’ll probably lean on him and Rose even more than usual on Saturday to ease Smith into the game and neutralize Florida’s nation-leading pass rush.

Quarterback Sawyer Smith

How Smith fares in his first start will likely determine whether UK makes this a competitive game or gets blown out. He played well in his one quarter of action last week, completing five of nine passes for 76 yards and a pair of scores, including a 54-yarder. Stoops said on Wednesday that his offense isn’t going to change with Smith at quarterback, but it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some new wrinkles given his vastly different skillset. How the Gators adjust to those wrinkles is a huge key to the game.

Defensive End Josh Paschal

Paschal might have the most interesting story on UK’s roster. He flashed as a freshman in 2017, recording 4.5 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks. He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot in July 2018 and missed most of last season while he received treatment. He returned in November, played in the Wildcats’ final three games and was named SEC co-Defensive Player of the Week. He leads the Wildcats in 2019 with three tackles-for-loss and is tied for the team lead with one sack.

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