Kentucky defeated UT-Martin, 59-14, the only drama being a UK cheerleader who suffered a grisly head/neck injury late in the fourth quarter. On the field, there were several questions for the UK football team heading into the season, including whether the recently-named quarterback, Patrick Towles, would be able to execute the offense upon being named the starter. UK fans know he has the arm strength and measurables, but would the space between his ears have improved during his redshirt season? Today, albeit against FCS competiton, Towles informed the doubters that he is up to the task.
Towles threw for 370 yards and rushed for a 30-yard touchdown prior to being pulled. The offense tallied a total of 649 yards with a variety of freshmen and transfers contributing to the cause. Encouraging for UK fans was the lack of key starters playing beyond the first half. Starting offensive tackle Darrian Miller was already being held out for discipline reasons, but tackle Jordan Swindle, running backs Braylon Heard and JoJo Kemp, and receivers Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons all saw significantly less action in the second half. The Nebraska transfer Heard finished the game with 116 yards and 2 TDs on 2 carries. Yes. Two. Carries. He will be a borderline top five SEC running back this season.
UK's defense is the larger area of concern, but today proved capable. A defense that played 85 percent 4-3 fronts last season played much more 3-4 fronts this game. Some of that is due to newly arrived and developed personnel, but a lot of it is Stoops commitment to being "multiple" defensively. After charting the game I'll have a better idea of the percentage of 3-4 to 4-3, and their down and distance tendencies. From a single viewing, it appeared Stoops is willing to blitz more from the secondary this season.
The pass rush and secondary were both supposed to be better this season, and today both units justified the lofty hopes, especially due to the play of JUCO transfer AJ Stamps. UK intercepted two passes, returned a fumble for a touchdown, and caused five turnovers total. Though improved, the front seven has much room for improvement, especially against the run. The issues at linebacker weren't as problematic as originally conceived, but there is little to no depth and they remain undersized against power offenses. Tellingly, UK's coaches kept the first team defense in late into the third quarter, implying the need for additional reps.
By the way, if you want to be a SEC football hipster, jump on the Kendall Randolph bandwagon now. The freshman nickel back displayed good blitzing, tackling, and ball skills. Heard it here first.
The spread had UK winning by 21 points and UK had no problems overcoming that line today. Nonetheless, UK's rushing defense will continue to be a weakness going ahead, but if they can continue to cause at least three turnovers a game, that gets cancelled out (15 takeaways all last season) most days. The offense, meanwhile, will be significantly improved as long as the team stays healthy.
Today's impressive result was against a FCS opponent that will probably go on to win around six to eight games. It certainly doesn't mean UK will win the SEC East, but today's results suggest UK is likely winning at least four games, and has a chance to win five to six if the ball bounces their way. More importantly, the Year One to Year Two improvement under Mark Stoops and his assistants bodes well for the future, especially as strong recruiting continues.