Charles Walker knew it had been a really, really long time since Kentucky had returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
He said the special teams players are reminded of it often in their meeting rooms and in film sessions.
But the Kentucky wide receiver honestly didn’t know that the Cats also hadn’t scored on a punt return since 2010.
He was happy to finally end the discussion about that, too, even if he didn’t know it was an issue.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
“It was awesome,” the junior said of his 65-yard punt return for a touchdown. “My first college touchdown and that’s definitely the way to do it.”
It was Kentucky’s first punt return for a touchdown since Randall Cobb did it in 2010. Walker was a freshman at Louisville St. Xavier at the time.
The Cats are still looking to end the kickoff return for a touchdown drought (2009), but were happy to finally get a first special teams touchdown in six years.
“It was nice to see us hit a punt return,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “We finally were right about getting a special teams touchdown. That’s a good thing.”
For Walker, it was a great thing because he hated that he dropped a punt return in the first half at the Cats’ 31-yard line and New Mexico State had immediately turned that into points.
Walker tried not to dwell on the mistake, though.
“We believe you can’t harp on the past,” he said. “It happened. Nothing I can do to change it except make up for it, so hopefully I did that.”
Walker broke down the 65-yarder for a touchdown — UK’s final score in a 62-42 win over the Aggies on Saturday — like a kid unwrapping his favorite Christmas gift.
“The players on my team had great blocks,” he said. “I caught the ball, made the first two guys miss and two great scrape paints — where you don’t block in the back, you let me get through — and from there it was all open field. I had to make some cuts and get to the end zone.”
The head coach was excited to talk about that group after the victory, especially special teams coordinator Matt House.
“Our coverage teams have been really good,” Stoops said. “When we get good kicks we’re pretty good and our kickoff return’s been real close to hitting one and I thought we’d hit a kickoff return before we hit the punt return.”
Kentucky has now used several players on kickoff returns, including Benny Snell, Jeff Badet, Jojo Kemp and Sihiem King.
Defense ‘playing too uptight’
It seems hopeless for Kentucky’s defense, which has now given up 500 yards in each of its first three games and four times in the past 15 games.
The Cats’ defensive struggles have included giving up 400 or more yards in nine of the last 15 games.
But it’s going to get better, Stoops and his players said.
Their proof is in the second half when the Cats allowed just seven points and 155 yards (84 rushing, 71 passing) to a New Mexico State offense that had gashed them for 345 yards in the first half.
“Coach told us just settle down, stop putting so much pressure on yourselves and just play the game,” said cornerback Derrick Baity, who had a key interception when the Aggies were driving late in the game.
“Points that they had, we were basically giving it to them with miscommunications and this and that. … He was just like, ‘Settle down. Play the game you love and stop putting so much pressure on yourself because when you’re putting too much pressure on yourself, that’s when you’re thinking too much and playing too uptight.”
After two straight losses to open the season, Stoops called for simplification on both sides of the ball.
There might be even more of that to come for the defense.
“We have got a lot to get fixed there, but we will,” said Stoops, who said a new front seven has been struggling to understand the multiple defenses UK wants to run.
“It’s getting a little bit confusing to them, even though we’re trying to be simple,” he said. “So we have got some inexperience there, and we got to figure out how to get them to play better.”
On Barker and other injuries
Little is known about the extent of quarterback Drew Barker’s injury sustained on the first series. Initially, UK reported that the quarterback had an injured leg. Later, Stoops said it was a back injury.
There was no update after the game other than the sophomore had been taken for further evaluation.
Stoops blamed Barker’s interception on that first series on the pain.
“He must have been hurting, I think he got hit, he got hit on the first or second play,” Stoops said. “His back was bothering him. He made a very poor throw on the first interception, but he was hurt.”
Quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said there was no doubt that Barker was in pain after that first hit. “He sailed the ball and it looked like he was hurting when he came to the sideline. He said, ‘I don’t know if I should be playing anymore.’”
▪ True freshman Landon Young got his first start at left tackle with Cole Mosier out with an ankle sprain last week.
▪ Senior running back Jojo Kemp didn’t play after injuring his ankle, but he should be fine for next week, Stoops said.