Missouri's wide receivers pose a big problem for UK football

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 5, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

To put it simply: Kentucky's defense has a tall task on Saturday.

It's not just because the Cats are facing the nation's ninth-ranked team.

UK is at a serious size disadvantage against Missouri, which has six regularly used wide receivers that are 6-foot-2 or taller.

None of the Tigers' top three receivers, who have combined for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, is smaller than 6-4.

"They're as good as we've faced," UK safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto said. "They're good, they're tall. They run great routes; they've got great speed. They compete. They're very physical on the perimeter. This is as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached against."

They are a big reason Missouri's offense has been so productive this season, getting 20 touchdowns through the air, second in the Southeastern Conference behind only Texas A&M and that Heisman Trophy quarterback.

The Tigers' receivers aren't just big. They're productive.

L'Damian Washington, a 6-4 senior, leads the way with nine of his 14 career touchdowns this season. He's got plenty of help from guys like 6-5, 220-pound Marcus Lucas (43 catches, 522 yards and two touchdowns) and 6-6 sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham (33 catches, 479 yards and five TDs).

It's been a luxury to have so many dynamic playmakers, the Missouri players said. It prevents opponents from double-teaming.

"We are just out there having fun," Lucas said. "It is not really about who is getting the most catches or most touchdowns or anything like that. It is about having fun, and we all enjoy watching each other having success. So, it has just been really fun."

It might turn out to be as fun for Kentucky (2-5, 0-4) as a root canal sans Novocaine.

The Tigers' wide receivers, who are coached by former UK assistant coach Pat Washington, look more like an NBA roster.

"They do catch a lot of 50/50 balls because they're so big and they use their bodies so well, like a power forward would do on a rebound," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "A lot of guys have had them covered pretty good and they still made plays. So we've got to do a good job of getting those balls out."

Part of that will fall on UK's defensive line, which has effectively gotten pressure on the quarterback this season.

But Missouri's quarterbacks — James Franklin, who has been injured, or his backup Maty Mauk — have been able to throw the ball up and count on one of those "power forwards" to get it.

It's a dangerous matchup for UK's defensive backs, none of which is taller than 6 feet.

So they have to look for other ways to get a leg up.

"You gotta use your advantages," cornerback Nate Willis said. "You gotta use your quickness. You gotta use your speed. You gotta use your speed in and out of your breaks. You just gotta use all your advantages, just be technique sound and play your game."

Peveto said the message to UK's secondary is clear.

"Just because you might not be as tall as somebody don't mean that you can't play to his height," he said

UK's players will need to use their leaping ability and not be afraid to play physically against the much bigger and heavier Missouri receivers.

Thanks in part to their blocking skills, the Tigers have had 10 pass plays of 40-plus yards this season, most in the SEC. They make catches and help each other continue plays.

Kentucky has improved in its pass defense under Coach Mark Stoops, but it still has some deficiencies. UK ranks last in the SEC in passes defended (three a game) and last in the nation in interceptions, with just one.

Since 1946, the Cats have never ended a season with fewer than four interceptions (1990). They had just five picks last season — two against Missouri via J.D. Harmon, who is sitting out this season.

Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 128 passes without an interception since Kentucky's lone pick against Florida. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was asked whether there were any drills the Cats could do to get more picks.

"I wish there was," he said on Tuesday. "We do everything we've always ever done, so I think that being in the right place is critical, having them covered. Not only that, it's finishing the play. We've had our opportunities to catch the ball and we just haven't done it."

They likely will get plenty of chances on Saturday.


Saturday

No. 9 Missouri at Kentucky

When: Noon TV: ESPNU


Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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