All eyes will be on No. 1 when Kentucky kicks off on Saturday night at South Carolina.
“He’s scary,” the UK special teams coach said.
“He’s electric; he’s a playmaker,” head coach Mark Stoops said.
He’s Deebo Samuel and he’s already accounted for five of South Carolina’s nine touchdowns this season.
The 6-foot, 215-pound junior wideout opened the season with a 97-yard kickoff return, then hit another one in the Missouri game to help the Gamecocks get to 2-0. He’s turned two of his 10 catches into scores and added a touchdown run for good measure.
“They want the ball in his hands, he’s got quick-hand touches, he does things on reverses, little fly sweeps, punt and kick returns — many different ways,” Stoops said of Samuel, who was clocked at 22 miles per hour in the opener. “Obviously they’ll isolate him to get you one-on-one in the passing game.”
On kickoffs, UK is going to have to be better than it was a week ago against Eastern Kentucky when two returns nearly became touchdowns if not for the tackling of kicker Austin MacGinnis.
Kentucky’s players were out of position and had missed tackles on both of them, said Dean Hood, the special teams coach.
The kicks also weren’t up to MacGinnis’ usually lofty standard.
“As I was correcting the guys on what they needed to do better, we ended the session and I was going on to another segment and he said, ‘Guys, there’ll be better kicks next week,’” Hood said of the senior kicker. “He owned up to it without me even saying anything to him.”
All of that will come into play with Samuel back there on returns.
Kentucky will have to know where he is at all times, Stoops said, but the Cats can’t forget about the Gamecocks’ other weapons, including tight end Hayden Hurst.
“They have several different playmakers, so it’s hard to pick one guy to roll,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “If you just have one guy, you can roll and take out a guy. But that’s hard to do when you got several guys like that.”
Hurst has scored twice this season as well, first on a 39-yard pass from quarterback Jake Bentley and then on a 2-yard run.
Another playmaker, Rico Dowdle, already has one rushing touchdown and a 34-yard touchdown catch, too.
“They’re balanced,” Stoops said. “They have good playmakers across the board. … They put a lot of stress on you.”
Brown ready to go
With no Jordan Jones (shoulder injury), at least for this week, all eyes fall on backup Eli Brown, who has two tackles in two games and a pass breakup this season.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore linebacker from Bowling Green started last week in place of Jones, who likely was sitting for an exchange with some fans at Southern Miss the week before. Stoops was frustrated with a costly penalty on special teams early in the game by Brown, which meant fewer snaps for him in the EKU game.
It was definitely a “learning experience” for Brown, who played in 12 games last season, House said.
“He did a really nice thing on the second play of that series and then not a very smart football play to prolong the drive,” he said.
Last season with Jones injured, Brown had four tackles against Tennessee and a career-best seven tackles against Alabama. He has 26 career tackles.
The sophomore learned a lot from last season, especially about how much harder he has to work to become an impact player.
“I’ve changed a lot,” Brown said of this season to last season. “I came in last year lazy. Now it’s like I’m going full speed. If I’m not sweating a lot, I feel like I’m not doing (enough) in practice.”
Behind Brown is a bigger question mark in Jamar “Boogie” Watson, who hasn’t recorded a tackle yet this season. The redshirt freshman is versatile and has practiced at multiple linebacker spots.
‘Weather the storm’
For its first home game of the season, South Carolina has announced a blackout, a sellout and some new in-game entertainment in the form of a deejay and extra pyrotechnics.
So Stoops and UK can expect Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250) to be a bit more amped-up than usual on Saturday night. It already was a difficult place to play, the head coach said Monday.
“I was pretty amazed, really, the first time I ever played down there with the atmosphere,” he said. “It was fantastic. Really great venue. It will be a real challenge, but we have to embrace that.”
It was nice to already get a win on the road this season at the opener at Southern Miss, Cats coaches said, but this will be a much different environment.
“It’s going to be loud,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who said he saw his worst fears play out watching an NFL game Monday night. “First play of the game, the Chargers are getting a penalty because of the time running out. They’re not communicating.”
What can UK learn? “Weather the storm, match their intensity.”
To try to simulate the environment, which might be the rowdiest road trip this season for UK, coaches piped in excessive noise where the players can’t hear or talk.
Other game keys
The Gamecocks have been weird birds statistically. They are 2-0 this season with a big road win at Missouri and a 35-28 victory against N.C. State in Charlotte to open the season.
And while they’ve managed wins, the Gamecocks have given up tons of yards, allowing opponents to rack up 463.5 yards per game, most in the league and 108th out of 130 teams nationally.
Don’t let the numbers fool you, UK’s offensive coordinator said, noting that South Carolina has been especially stout in the red zone, allowing just five scores in nine opponents’ trips (No. 17 nationally and fourth in league).
“They’re definitely better than they were last year,” Gran said of the Gamecocks, whom UK put up 351 total yards against last season.
“A lot of those guys were young and (Coach Will Muschamp) has done a great job of getting those guys doing the right things at the right time. He mixes things up; he’s never going to make you feel comfortable.”
▪ Turnovers could be key for both teams, with both coming in at plus-four in turnover margin. South Carolina has scored 28 points off opponent miscues; UK has 17 points on them.
2017 UK football schedule
Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.
Sept. 2: at Southern Miss (W, 24-17)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY (W, 27-16)
Sept. 16: at South Carolina, 7:30 (SEC)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN
Oct. 7: MISSOURI
Oct. 21: at Mississippi St.
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE
Nov. 4: OLE MISS
Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt
Nov. 18: at Georgia
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE