The graduate transfer from Columbia University was arrested last weekend for public intoxication.
“As far as with Matt Panton ... he will be suspended for (the Vanderbilt) game and he will not participate for failure to meet the standards and the expectations of our football team,” Stoops said.
That was the right decision. Yet the ethical ramifications of suspending the starting punter going into a game at Vanderbilt that Kentucky (6-3, 3-3 SEC) really needs to win are far less clear.
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It appears UK will turn to Grant McKinniss, its starting punter in 2016 as a true freshman, to kick in Nashville on Saturday. It will be the first game action of the 2017 season for the Findlay, Ohio, product. That means in the season’s 10th contest, McKinniss will be giving up the chance to redshirt (sitting out of competition this year without losing a season of eligibility).
Stoops acknowledged Monday how unfair that is.
“I think that’s one of the unfortunate situations with this, is with Matt’s actions, you know, Grant is the one that has to sacrifice because we could have saved his year and gave him a redshirt year,” the UK coach said.
“But with the situation the way it is, he’s our best option. Every game is important. I talked to Grant about that, and he is willing to go do whatever is necessary to help the football team win.”
If you wonder what McKinniss’ thoughts are on what he’s being asked to do, so do I. Because he has not played in a game this season, UK did not make him available for media interviews this week.
Those of us who have followed Kentucky football for a year or two tend to have strongly negative visceral reactions to burning redshirt years for football players late in seasons.
That goes back to the dark days of the Bill Curry coaching era in the mid-1990s. At the end of a 4-7 season in 1995, when the only thing Kentucky was playing for were the jobs of the coaches, Curry and UK pulled redshirts off wide receiver Kevin Coleman in the ninth game and center Jason Watts in the 10th.
The following season, the Curry coaching staff was fired mid-year, but left in place to finish out the season. For the 1996 regular-season finale at Tennessee, with UK playing out the string at 4-6, the lame-duck Curry staff pulled the redshirt off true freshman fullback Jimmy Haley.
It was an unconscionable coaching decision.
The problem in major college sports when a coach goes to a player late in a season and asks them to forgo a redshirt and play is that the player can’t really say no. If a player declines, they risk taking on the coach’s wrath and being portrayed as selfish.
Yet the current Kentucky punting situation is not as black and white as the Curry era, late-season redshirt burning was.
Unlike those mid-1990s UK teams, the 2017 Wildcats have meaningful things to play for.
Already postseason eligible, the Cats are trying to climb the SEC bowl pecking order.
Kentucky still has a viable chance to become the first UK team since 1984 to win eight games in a regular season. With contests remaining at Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5 SEC), at undefeated Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC) and vs. archrival Louisville (5-4, 2-4), a win in Nashville is essentially mandatory to keep that hope alive.
During a year when six of the nine Wildcats games have been decided by seven points or less, there’s every reason to expect another heart-thumper at Vandy.
In close games, the punting tends to be crucial.
Stoops said backup place-kicker Miles Butler has been considered UK’s “emergency punter” this season.
Kentucky special teams coach Dean Hood acknowledged Wednesday that using Butler — who has already burned his redshirt year — at punter Saturday is an option UK could have deployed. “But if you want to stay with executing what we have been doing (in the punt game), then Grant (McKinniss) is the answer,” Hood said.
Bottom line, what Kentucky is asking of McKinniss is unfair to the player. Yet would UK going to Vanderbilt and losing due to problems in the punting game because the Cats didn’t use their best available option be fair to the other 84 scholarship players?
“We appreciate Grant,” Stoops said, “for his unselfishness in this situation.”
UK can show that appreciation by letting McKinniss be the starting punter for the rest of 2017. That seems the least Stoops and Co. should do.