There wasn’t a minute of practice this week in which somebody wasn’t trying to swipe the ball out of the hands of Stephen Johnson.
Each time the Kentucky quarterback dropped back to make a throw, there was his position coach pawing at the ball.
In his spare time, Johnson ran through a blaster machine, which has its own ways of getting quarterbacks to surrender the ball.
Whatever UK could do to emphasize ball security this week with Johnson, who had three fumbles against Alabama last week, losing two of them, it did.
The junior-college transfer has coughed up the ball six times in his first season at Kentucky. Some were picked up by UK with no damage done. Some led to touchdowns.
Neither kind is acceptable.
“I’m not gonna beat a dead horse,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “He knows the deal. He can’t do it anymore. It’s unacceptable. That’s the deal. So we’re gonna keep coaching it and coaching it hard and he’s gotta handle it. He’s gotta take care of the rock.”
When the heat was turned up last Saturday at Alabama, co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw saw Johnson revert to his junior-college form of taking off with the ball in one hand while stiff-arming defenders with another.
“He’s got to hold onto it with two hands, we’ve got to go down, we’ve got to protect ourselves like an NFL quarterback,” Hinshaw said. “That’s great in junior college, not at Alabama. We can’t do that. He’s got to learn to go down.”
On many of those plays, Johnson was trying to extend a play or get extra yardage or running to avoid a sack. Johnson, who made his Southeastern Conference road debut at Alabama, will get smarter about it.
“It’s just something you have to work on, me in particular, is ball protection,” he said. “Keeping it high and tight and having it secured in the pocket.”
Vanderbilt (2-3, 0-2 SEC) is no Alabama, but the Commodores’ opponents have fumbled nine times this season and Vandy has recovered six of those.
Kentucky is among the top three most turnover-prone teams in the country with 14 miscues (eight fumbles, six interceptions).
“We’re going to try to put pressure on the quarterback, make these guys earn everything they get,” Vandy Coach Derek Mason promised this week.
While opponents have scored zero points off of Commodores miscues this season (the Commodores are plus-three in turnover margin), UK opponents have scored 62 points off of Wildcats turnovers.
“A big determining factor in this game will be turnovers,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “Vandy has done a nice job with that.”
Fighting, battling ... biting?
The Vanderbilt loss last season in Nashville was a hard one to swallow for Kentucky’s head coach.
“This is the first time I’ve felt like we were a better team and went in there and lost,” Stoops said after the 21-17 defeat. “That puts the frustration at the highest point.”
The game included two empty trips within the 5-yard line (one in which Vandy got four straight stops at the 1), a fumble near the end zone, a pick six, special teams gaffes and an unguarded Commodores player scoring on a trick play.
Everyone involved in that game has his own memories he can’t shake. For defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, it was the final nine-play, 23-yard drive that kept Vandy on the field for 4:30.
“That can’t happen,” he said this week. “We should’ve been able to stop them and give the offense back the ball one more time.”
For defensive backs Derrick Baity and Mike Edwards, it was the trick play.
“One play that seemed unreal,” Baity said. “They snuck a guy on the field and you didn’t know if he was in the game or out of the game and they just threw it to him and he scored.”
Edwards said UK “let that get away. … They ran the ball for the most part and tried some trick stuff, got us off guard. … They got the best of us, so we’ve got to get better this game.”
Kentucky players seem ready to use that loss as motivation this season.
“Last year it left a bad taste in our mouth, we’ve got to win this game,” Baity said. “That’s the type of game this is, we have to win.”
But for the sophomore, it’s not just about revenge, but about keeping UK in the hunt for that all-important sixth win.
“It’s a must win,” he said. “Whatever it comes down to: fighting, battling, biting in a game, that’s what it is. We’ve got to win.”
Hidden yardage game
From time to time, Stoops likes to take jabs at the local media and this season, those seem to be about the lack of questions about Kentucky’s special teams.
“I don’t meant to tease, it’s like ya’ll have a lot to critique, but last year I got a question about the special teams every game and nobody asks me a darn question about them anymore,” he joked.
That position group has given Stoops plenty of reasons to talk it up this season, including against top-ranked Alabama where Stoops said the group met all of its goals and won “every phase as far as plus-yardage,” he said. “I think we were plus-35. Against that group it’s not easy to do.”
For the season, UK is seventh in the nation in punt returns with six for 18.2 yards and a touchdown. The Cats are No. 31 in kickoff returns averaging 24.3 yards a return.
Vanderbilt is 100th in opponent kickoff returns, allowing 22.9 yards per return, so that might be a place where UK could take advantage.
On the flip side, Kentucky (2-3, 1-2) is No. 12 nationally in opponent kickoff returns, holding foes to 16.8 yards a return with less than a handful starting beyond the 25-yard line.
That average is a full 4 yards better than last season and 5 yards better than the season before.
Getting better punt yardage (42.7 yards per punt if the season-opening problems are taken out of the equation) and sky-high kickoffs that give the unit time to arrive have been key, Stoops said.
There hasn’t been some magic formula to it all, special teams coach Matt House said.
“More than anything, just showing them how they can affect the game and how they affect each other,” he said. “Just watching on tape how they can make a difference.”
Special teams quality control assistant Louie Matsakis “does a great job as far as charting and showing hidden yardage,” House said. “We show the kids how big of an effect they can make on the game.”
Those hidden yards House was discussing could have a big effect on the Vanderbilt game.
All three of the Commodores’ losses this season have come with their worst starting field position averages. In their two wins against Middle Tennessee (43-yard line) and Western Kentucky (28-yard line) they had their best field position averages.
Keep an eye on
▪ Vanderbilt has never won an SEC road game under Mason, going 2-8 in the league while at home and 0-8 on the road in his three years as head coach.
▪ Kentucky could see the return of some key players on offense in Dorian Baker, last year’s leading wide receiver, and left tackle Cole Mosier. “They’re good to go,” Stoops said. … On the other side of the ball, defensive back Marcus Walker has been out with an undisclosed injury, but should be back to full strength this week.
▪ Vanderbilt’s Oren Burks, who tortured Cats quarterbacks with his two interceptions including one returned for a TD last season and one in the end zone, is back. So far this season, the safety has five pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and one interception returned for 59 yards. The Commodores also have the league’s leading tackler in linebacker Zach Cunningham (52 tackles, 8.5 for loss).
UK scores, schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISS (L, 44-35)
Sept. 10: At Florida (L, 45-7)
Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO ST. (W, 62-42)
Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA (W, 17-10)
Oct. 1: At Alabama (L, 34-6)
Oct. 8: VANDERBILT, 4 p.m.
Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29: At Missouri
Nov. 5: GEORGIA
Nov. 12: At Tennessee
Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26: At Louisville
Auburn at Mississippi St., noon
Tennessee at Texas A&M, 3:30
Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 4
Alabama at Arkansas, 7
LSU at Florida (Postponed)
Georgia at South Carolina, 2:30