When Kentucky’s official depth chart is released on Monday, there might be a bit of a traffic jam at the kicker spot.
It could be a group effort to replace Austin MacGinnis, the school’s all-time leading scorer and a consistent threat from inside 50 yards for his entire career.
Even with less than a handful of days remaining before coaches announce starters for the first game against Central Michigan, special teams coach Dean Hood said there are still some unknowns.
Former walk-on Miles Butler is a known commodity to the staff, having come in when the Cats were without MacGinnis while he battled an injury a couple seasons ago. Butler also came in for a game and did some punting.
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“Miles has been in a game both as a kicker and as a punter,” Hood said after practice on Thursday night. “Really a lot of pressure on him as the punter last year having never done that and being put in that moment. You feel good about that, seeing that.”
Outside of that mental part of the game, the coaches are mostly using statistical data to chart every kick and make an informed kicker decision.
“From this hash, that hash, middle, the distance and all that and just checking the accuracy of it,” he said. “Like we talked about earlier, that’s all fine and well until all the sudden those distances mean we’re going to go up by a point with a minute to go or something.”
True freshman kicker Chance Poore has missed a few more than Buter overall, but some of that is coaches testing his distance.
Poore has a bigger leg than Butler, Hood said.
Then there’s the speed of the college game.
“Being a freshman, he had to get used to the timing of it,” Hood said of Poore, the No. 1 punter/kicker in the 2018 class according to Prokicker.com. “You know it’s a lot faster snap, a lot faster hold, a lot faster thing and he had to get used to that, I think. And in all fairness to him, we’re pushing him beyond as far as yardage.”
On Kentucky’s media day, Poore said his ideal range is inside the 50-yard line. The longest field goal he’s made in a game is 49 yards. He has hit a 62-yarder in practice.
“I’m working my way up, being consistent,” he said.
It’s likely both Butler and Poore will travel with the team and be ready for several scenarios, including the senior from Paducah on extra points and field goals in his range. And then Poore potentially coming in for long field-goal attempts in specific situations.
New NCAA redshirt rules say that Poore could come in and kick in up to four games without losing a season of eligibility, which changes things.
It’s hard to know what UK will have without seeing each kicker perform in pressure situations during actual games, which means this could remain a fluid situation beyond the opener.
“I can probably make eight out of 10 free throws out in the driveway, but if I’ve got to make two to win the game that’s a big deal,” Hood said. “You don’t know until you get them out there and see what they do.”
‘Tried to find a niche’
In an interesting twist, kickoffs likely will be performed this season by a former punter. Grant McKinniss, who punted his true freshman season but then lost the job the last two springs to an Australian punter, has embraced his new spot.
“I’m just really proud of him where he’s tried to find a niche, tried to find a way,” Hood said of McKinniss. “He cares about his teammates and wants to do well, so he’s like, ‘OK, where can I help the team?’ And he’s kicking them six, seven, eight yards deep in the end zone.”
His height and distance on kickoffs have been good overall, Hood said of the player, who had 44 of his 60 kickoffs downed for touchbacks in 2014 for Findlay (Ohio) High School.
Who’s the next Moushey?
A name few had heard of, Charles Moushey, became the face of Kentucky’s special teams unit last year for his ability to fly down the field and down punts near the goal line.
The wide receiver, who also specialized in big tackles inside opponents’ 20-yard line, might have graduated but his legacy lives on in the special teams groups.
During camp, each time Dean Hood would put in special teams training tapes showing how things were to be done and “I can’t tell you how many times it was a Moushey rep,” the coach said of the specialist who finished the season with 11 tackles.
Lots of players are trying to become the 2018 version of Moushey now, too.
Hood continued: “He started a fire with special teams guys as a whole and there’s guys on the special teams in their mind — in their heart — they’re out here saying, ‘OK, I’m going to be the next Moushey.’ I really believe that.”
Will new kickoff rule mean big changes?
A new NCAA rule that allows teams to fair catch the kickoff anywhere inside the 25-yard line and have it treated like a touchback likely won’t change much about UK’s special teams plans in 2018, Hood said this month.
Because Kentucky’s regular kickoff return scheme includes having three returners back there, “I don’t think it’s going to affect us as much as some other people,” Hood said. “I still think it’s a matter of do you match up well? What are you telling your returner as far as taking it out? When you don’t have the matchups, do you tell him to go out there and fair catch it inside the 20 and all that rather than kneeling at the goal line?”
On the flip side, there’s a chance UK potentially will add more squib kicks and some deeper sky kicks to try and make teams field it and not just settle for the 25-yard starting point. But that’s also going to depend on the matchups.
UK season opener
Central Michigan at Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m. Sept. 1