UK Football

‘Sawyer’s gotta be happy.’ UK’s O-line looks stout heading into Florida game.

Florida this year returned five starters on offense and eight on defense, the latter leading the Southeastern Conference, but could be without starting cornerback CJ Henderson, a potential first-round NFL Draft pick who suffered a left ankle sprain against Tennessee Martin last weekend. Gators head coach Dan Mullen on Monday said Henderson was doubtful to play against UK.

That means Florida could lean even more on a pass rush that so far has generated 15 sacks and 26 tackles for loss, both leading the Southeastern Conference (the Gators lead the nation in sacks; their TFLs are No. 2 among FBS teams behind Central Florida’s 28).

Mark Stoops on Monday said Florida has some “game-wreckers” up front on defense. The two most notable are defensive end Jabari Zuniga and linebacker Jonathan Greenard, who transferred from Louisville following the 2018 season.

Pro Football Focus, a stat-keeping service that each week reviews and gives grades to every every player on every snap across all of college football’s 130 teams, has Zuniga as the SEC’s current leader in “total pressures.” Greenard is tied for second in that category.

Some perspective on the Gators’ gaudy statistics: 10 of their sacks were against Miami (Fla.) in week zero; the Hurricanes gave up four sacks to North Carolina last weekend, and PFF senior analyst Cam Mellor said their pass-blocking grade through the season is what they classify as “poor.” Florida’s second opponent was Tennessee Martin, an FCS team.

Of Florida’s 63 total pressures this season, 14 were unblocked by an offensive player and 22 were “cleanup” pressures — awarded to a player who finishes out a defensive pressure originated, but not completed, by a teammate.

“That’s a pretty heavy percentage of plays where you’ve ‘lucked into’ a pressure, so to speak,” Mellor said during a phone interview with the Herald-Leader.

Mellor said Zuniga and Greenard are something of a “two-headed monster,” and that linebacker Jeremiah Moon has shown promise.

“They do have a high pass-rush win percentage, those two guys do,” Mellor said. “… I don’t know if they have much depth behind them.”

Kentucky’s offensive line has graded well in its games against Toledo and Eastern Michigan. The Wildcats received PFF’s third-highest pass-blocking grade in week one and was recognized as one of the top units in college football in week two.

Offensive tackle Landon Young, who missed last year’s matchup due to a torn ACL, was named SEC Lineman of the Week following UK’s win over Eastern Michigan. He, Luke Fortner and Logan Stenberg were named to PFF’s SEC Offensive Team of the Week.

UK’s offensive line has been responsible for four total pressures to given up to its opponents so far.

“Through two games, that’s pretty remarkable,” Mellor said. “Fortner’s got 55 pass-blocking snaps and just one QB hit allowed, (Drake) Jackson has one QB hit allowed, (Darian) Kinnard has a sack and a hurry and from there nobody has anything else. Anybody that’s played, that’s it.”

Mellor said UK’s o-line versus Florida’s defensive front is one of the most underrated matchups of the week.

“This is, obviously, their biggest test, but Sawyer (Smith)’s gotta be pretty happy,” Mellor said.

Zuniga lines up on both sides of the field but has played most of his snaps against the left side of the offensive line, meaning Young will most frequently be responsible for protecting UK’s new starting quarterback against the SEC sacks leader.

From a skillset standpoint, Zuniga is a little “bigger and clunkier” as a pass rusher than Josh Allen was at UK last season. Allen steadily rose up PFF’s rating chart from his first year on campus to an elite level; Zuniga has ebbed and flowed but so far is having a career year for the Gators, and could end up being a first-round selection.

“Maybe there’s a little bit of cross-comparison there, but I do think that the way that Allen played, it was much more fluid than Zuniga is at this point,” Mellor said. “We’ll see though. I could be wrong moving forward. There’s some similarities for sure but I think Allen is the better athlete.”

Saturday

No. 9 Florida at Kentucky

7 p.m. (ESPN)

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.
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