New Kentucky punter Matt Panton knew he was going to get the start and he was prepared, but it didn’t keep him from being a little jittery.
“I was a bit nervous, but I was more excited,” said the graduate transfer from Australia. “We had done well in practice, so I was just happy to get out there.”
If Panton was nervous, it didn’t show in his performance, which included two kicks that were downed at the 1-yard line.
“He was outstanding,” special teams coordinator Dean Hood said. “The kid averaged 42 yards and had five punts inside the 20 and only had one touchback. That might’ve been my fault. We went a pocket punt when we should’ve gone rugby. Might’ve had five inside the 20.”
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Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, who has been notably frustrated with a punting unit that finished near the bottom of the league last season, was pleased with Panton and the other special teams units. Behind that group, Southern Miss’s average starting spot was its own 17-yard line.
“Really big,” Stoops said of Panton, who had nine punts for 378 yards, including 39 net yards per punt. “I thought he really did a nice job in particular with killing it inside the 20. We knew he was very accurate there. He was consistent, gave us some good roll.”
There are still a few things on special teams Hood would like to get ironed out, though.
That includes building some time into practice for punt safe situations. A stellar play by Courtney Love saved UK when Southern Miss tried to fake a punt.
“We were sloppy,” Hood said. “I’ve got to figure out a way to go into punt safe. There was a lot more punt safe in this situation than normally come about.”
And Hood was hopeful to get Kentucky’s other punter, sophomore Grant McKinniss, into the game. He was last season’s starter who got beat out by Panton, but only by a slim margin, Hood said
“There just never was a flow, like we’re in control of this, let’s get him a punt and see how he does,” Hood said of McKinniss. “Hopefully that will come and we do get him in there I do want to see how he’ll do in a game and see if he’s improved from a year ago.”
Offensive line frustrations
Kentucky’s offensive line didn’t look like the group that blocked for the third-best rushing offense in the Southeastern Conference last season. And UK’s 78 total yards rushing certainly didn’t scream that.
But there’s plenty of room for improvement, coaches said.
There was a lot of shuffling when starting center Bunchy Stallings went out for a bit with a rolled ankle. He returned later but wasn’t at 100 percent.
His replacement, Nick Haynes, suffered from some dehydration late.
“I’m proud of how they kept battling through it,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said. “Everything was a struggle. That was a really good football team that did a good job and did last year, too. Their defense does some things that give you issues up front and they do it really well.”
Schlarman isn’t done shuffling things either.
“We’ll see how guys played at certain spots and then we’ll keep assessing some of the young guys that didn’t get any time today,” he said, noting the Cats played seven offensive linemen on Saturday and would like to get the rotation to nine.
“We’re close,” he said. “We’ve just got to continue to progress.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said the running backs didn’t do their part to make the running game more sound, either.
“I don’t think our backs did a very good job of being patient,” he said. “I can see three right now — they’re going to be sick — and you’ve got to mellow out. You’ve got to make sure you do what we ask you to do. Some of that is just guys getting anxious. We beat our pullers to the hole a few times, and that’s not on the O-line.”
Many of the freshmen Mark Stoops said he wanted to get into the fold this season were able to make their college debuts at M.M. Roberts Stadium on Saturday.
The most impactful was outside linebacker Josh Paschal, who had key stop on the final drive and played well.
“He almost had (another) one right before the half,” outside linebackers coach Dean Hood said of the freshman. “He had a chance to get a safety and just missed him.
“He was mad at himself. He had a good game for his first college football game that he played. He missed a week of training camp, so he’s going to be good. He’s got a great mentor in Denzil (Ware).”
Defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna came in and had one tackle in limited action at nose guard.
Wide receivers Josh Ali, Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas all played — although sparingly — in the game.
Epps had one catch for 6 yards and Thomas one grab for 4 yards in the victory.
Defensive back Cedric Dort played on special teams.
▪ Three players made their first career starts: wide receiver Kayaune Ross, defensive end T.J. Carter and safety Darius West.