UK Football

‘Create winning habits.’ Nowhere to go but up for injury-riddled Kentucky secondary.

The University of Kentucky secondary entered 2019 with a lot of young bodies to bring up to speed in a hurry. Experience can only come so fast — UK gets to play just one game a week — but the early returns aren’t pretty.

Twenty-nine teams in college football have surrendered more passing yards per game — 267.7 — than Kentucky has this season. It is the 12th-worst FBS team against the pass and third-worst in the Southeastern Conference; Vanderbilt (332.5) and South Carolina (311.7), which between them have faced three pass-happy offenses in Alabama, Georgia and Purdue, have fared worse than the Wildcats.

In terms of total defense, UK’s 390.3 yards allowed per game ranks 80th among all 130 FBS teams. That’s bad, but if the secondary were to make an incremental improvement — let’s say, shave just 30 yards per game — off the passing yards allowed each time out — then the Cats would jump 20 spots in the rankings. Trim 50 yards per game away and we’re talking about a top-50 defense — still not great, but a much better complement to an offense that ranks 56th in the nation (430 ypg).

For Kentucky’s secondary to take fuller steps toward improving through the remaining 75 percent of the regular season, it needs to be at full strength. The Cats this weekend will make their first road trip with the services of true freshman Taj Dodson, a free safety who played big minutes after Yusuf Corker was ejected in the first quarter against Florida, in doubt after he suffered an undisclosed injury in the second half of that game.

Backup cornerback M.J. Devonshire, another true freshman, was scheduled to undergo a minor wrist surgery Monday but should be at Mississippi State “if he can manage the pain,” head coach Mark Stoops said.

UK will “probably cast him up and play,” Stoops said. “That hinders him a little bit, as well.”

With Dodson possibly sidelined, Moses Douglass — yet another true freshman — is listed as the Cats’ No. 2 free safety behind Corker this week. With cow bells on the horizon, the defense’s greenest group is getting greener.

“The young guys got to look at each other and communicate,” Stoops said. “It gets rocking out there, it gets loud. That’s when they really got to focus and communicate, over-communicate. There’s some things we need to continue to work on. That’s got to come from experience.”

How they fare against Mississippi State should be telling. The Bulldogs have played two quarterbacks — starter Tommy Stevens, a senior graduate transfer from Penn State, and Garrett Shrader, a true freshman — in their last two games, and neither has been asked to do a lot (in part due to the presence of Preseason All-SEC selection Kylin Hill, who’s rushed for 431 yards and two TDs). At 187.7 yards per game, MSU’s passing attack ranks 99th across college football and 13th in the SEC (Auburn lags slightly at 183.3).

Going on the road for the first time will be another big opportunity for Kentucky’s DBs to rise to the occasion. Can they start making strides in The Magnolia State?

“Inexperienced guys got to understand under that extreme pressure, their habits are going to come straight to the surface,” Stoops said. “We got to create winning habits, do things right all the time. ... I think with young guys in that position, if things start going bad, get a couple injuries, it’s human nature I think for them to get a touch rattled, get caught up in the moment a little bit. That’s when they have to focus on their details and their technique. Sometimes that strays.”

More Kentucky injuries

Phil Hoskins, a senior defensive tackle who suffered a knee injury while warming up before the Florida game, is also questionable against Mississippi State. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, a sophomore who was No. 2 on the depth chart behind Calvin Taylor Jr. in UK’s first two games due to Hoskins’ suspension for academic issues, is back at that spot.

Quarterback Sawyer Smith after making a touchdown-saving tackle following an interception appeared to favor his throwing hand on Saturday but continued to play against the Gators. “He hurt his wrist a little bit, but he’s fine,” Stoops said. “He’ll be good to go.”

Wide receiver Isaiah Epps has not yet played this season because of a foot injury. It doesn’t sound like the junior will be available at Mississippi State. “Not quite yet,” Stoops said when asked for a time frame for Epps’ return. “He’s working his way back, but he’s not on the depth chart this week.”

Kentucky-South Carolina

The SEC announced Monday that UK’s game at South Carolina on Sept. 28 will kick off at 7:30 p.m. It will be broadcast by the SEC Network.

Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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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.