UK Football

Writing off a struggling Tennessee team would be a mistake, Kentucky says

A fan held up a “Fire Butch Jones” sign during last Saturday’s Volunteers loss at Alabama.
A fan held up a “Fire Butch Jones” sign during last Saturday’s Volunteers loss at Alabama. AP

Maybe the media and message board types are writing Tennessee’s obituary.

Maybe others see a Volunteers team that’s winless in the Southeastern Conference and among the bottom of the league in key stats like scoring offense, passing offense and total offense, which has not scored a touchdown since Sept. 23. Or that Tennessee’s top playmaker has been suspended for the game.

Maybe they see the Vols’ defense struggling to stop the run.

Maybe they see fans discussing the status of head coach Butch Jones’ job after three straight losses.

This is not what Kentucky sees.

“Oh, no. We don’t see that at all,” co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “I think they’re going to come here and give us one heck of a game.”

Kentucky, which has lost five in a row to the Volunteers by a margin of 22.7 points a game, is well aware of what Tennessee is capable of, Cats Coach Mark Stoops said.

“I know the way people pile on people when they’re not doing so well; I know how that goes. I’ve been there,” Stoops continued. “We can’t control any of that. … I expect Tennessee to come in and play exceptionally hard just like they did this past week.”

Kentucky’s coaches have studied the film, seen the cracks, but also note that two of the losses in the league have been to its top two teams: Georgia and Alabama.

They note that the Volunteers have played close games against Florida and South Carolina, two teams UK also played closely.

“The reality is, they have a bunch of good football players and Butch Jones is a very good football coach and they’re playing hard for him,” Stoops said of Tennessee, which has won 31 of the last 32 contests in the border rivalry. “They’re going to come in here and play hard.”

Tennessee is a physical team up front defensively. They have strong, active linebackers and an athletic secondary, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran continued.

“There ain’t no doubt about it,” Gran said. “There will be no quit in them. Zero. So, we’ve got to be ready to go. There’s no doubt about it.”

Most of this week leading up to Saturday’s game at Kroger Field has been less about Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) and more about Kentucky.

The Cats have struggled similarly offensively. And they’re coming off a 45-7 shellacking at Mississippi State a week ago.

“It’s about us,” Stoops said Thursday. “If we didn’t play so well the last week individually, I think we’ve gotta have enough pride about ourselves to come back and play well. Collectively as a group I know it’s that way. I feel it this week.”

At practice this week, Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) has responded the way its coaches and players expected after a difficult loss. It’s been a more focused group.

“When we come together as a unit like we always do, that’s when we get our best results,” running back Benny Snell said. “Going forward after what’s been going on, guys have just been taking things more serious. Practice has been more serious and things have been how they should’ve been.”

The hope is that last week was just a hiccup, not full-on gastrointestinal discomfort for the rest of the season.

“We just gotta not have any lapses and not have any quarters, or series or plays where we’re not playing at our best,” Stoops said. “I think the group has some pride in what they’re doing and hopefully it’ll carry over into Saturday.”

After last Saturday’s 45-7 loss at Mississippi State, Kentucky’s secondary drew criticism from head coach Mark Stoops. Secondary coach Steve Clinkscale, safety Mike Edwards and cornerback Derrick Baity talk about the response.

‘Everything’s so instant’

On his radio show this week, Kentucky’s coach talked about how happy he is to not have played college football in the age of the internet, of Twitter, of social media.

Other than the issues with players taking to the various platforms to air their grievances, there also is the issue of perhaps too-instant feedback, Stoops argued.

“Their confirmation comes from social media instead of their team or their coaches,” Stoops said. “And maybe people don’t always see everything we see. You dumb luck into something or maybe somebody thinks they did really poorly when they did some really good things. And that’s what I mean by that.

“Everything’s so instant, you can’t wait until we review the film to see who the players of the game were and who all did well, and maybe if somebody did something real bad, then they’ve gotta hear about it.”

Kentucky is not the only team in the country that has had players or players’ families and friends venting about play calls.

Navigating it is a challenge, Snell admitted.

“Technology is always there, so it’s always going to be in your face, and people are going to say whatever they want to say,” the running back said. “It’s whether you pay attention to it or not, whether you let it get to you or not. A lot of things have been said to me, but I can’t let it get to me.”

The sophomore maybe could take a page from his position coach, who said he doesn’t read anything written about him or his play calling.

“If I hear something bad about me it’s coming from the street or something like that,” Gran smiled. “Somebody might flip me off or whatever. I don’t know, whatever. I don’t worry about that. I really don’t. We can score 50 and we didn’t run the ball enough. We could score 30 and we didn’t pass the ball enough.”

After Tuesday’s practice, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about criticism from Saturday’s 45-7 loss at Mississippi State.

News and notes

Tennessee will be without star running back John Kelly, who along with backup linebacker Will Ignont, was suspended after a traffic stop that resulted in a marijuana possession charge.

Kelly’s absence doesn’t change the game plan, Stoops said of the 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior.

“It really doesn’t,” he said. “It doesn’t because their other backs are like him in the receiving aspect of it, and that’s where Kelly was so good. And the other guys are good receiving tailbacks as well.”

Kelly has been the Volunteers’ top rusher in all seven games this season, including three games where he ran for 100 yards or more.

The junior leads UT in all-purpose yards this season at 124.3 a game, including 615 rushing and 255 receiving with six touchdowns.

This week’s Tennessee depth chart lists freshman Ty Chandler (27 carries for 118 yards) and sophomore Carlin Fils-aime (11 carries for 74 yards and two scores) as Kelly’s backups.

▪ The chance of rain has subsided a bit, but the cold still looks like it could play a factor in Saturday’s game with forecasts calling for a temperature of around 44 degrees at kickoff. This game is likely to feel much more like the November games these rivals had for many years.

UK practiced in the elements all week to get ready.

“Strap it up, let’s go,” Gran said of the cold night ahead. “Can’t do anything about the weather. It was cold at Louisville last year. At least to me; they said it wasn’t. It was cold to me.”

▪ All of the news on the injury front this week seems positive for Kentucky, including Stoops confirming on Thursday night that safety Mike Edwards (undisclosed injury) will play. Left tackle Landon Young, who took an awkward hit last week and left the Mississippi State game late, practiced and said he’s fine to play.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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 (W, 23-13)

Sept. 23: FLORIDA (L, 28-27)

Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN (W, 24-20)

Oct. 7: MISSOURI (W, 40-34)

Oct. 21: at Mississippi St. (L, 45-7)

Oct. 28: TENNESSEE, 7:30

Nov. 4: OLE MISS, 4

Nov. 11: at Vanderbilt

Nov. 18: at Georgia