UK Football

UK football notebook: Wildcats' youthful defense learning on the fly

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was irate with true freshman linebacker Jordan Jones for failing to defend the wheel route. Injuries have left the Cats without a lot of experience at key positions.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was irate with true freshman linebacker Jordan Jones for failing to defend the wheel route. Injuries have left the Cats without a lot of experience at key positions. Herald-Leader

Playing in his first college game, Jordan Jones looked to the sideline.

His defensive coaches, calm and collected, reminded the true freshman linebacker: "Jordan, get the wheel route."

"He said it, and I don't know what went through my head," Jones explained later of the play that landed him in front of an upset Mark Stoops as the Commonwealth Stadium scoreboard showed even more points for the visiting team.

"I saw the wheel route, but I just kept looking back at the quarterback when I should have been man-up on the running back."

These are the types of mistakes coaches deal with when playing so many true freshmen and redshirt freshmen at key positions on the defense.

Injuries, suspensions, departures all have meant fewer players with game experience. And that lack of experience showed in the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette when the Ragin' Cajuns came back from 23 points down to tie it in the fourth quarter.

Will Jones see the wheel route next time?

"I think I learned my lesson, for sure," he said smiling.

Originally thought to be a strength this season, the linebacker group has been decimated by injuries, suspensions, illnesses and departures.

Middle linebacker Josh Forrest is back to guide the defense, but running mate and starting weakside linebacker Ryan Flannigan is doubtful to play at South Carolina (1-0) on Saturday.

So the Cats (1-0) again will be relying on true freshmen to figure some things out quickly against a Gamecocks offense that will be heavy on the run.

Stoops was encouraged that those younger linebackers not only made big plays in last Saturday's victory, but that they also were quick to seek corrections this week in game prep.

"Clearly we need to do some things better," Stoops said this week. "It magnifies things when you completely blow something and give them a big run. That compounds your problems."

South Carolina amassed 254 yards on 47 carries last week in a 17-13 win over North Carolina.

"It's very important for us to get settled in and to get things cleaned up," Stoops said. "You certainly can't give up big runs. I mean, that's how (South Carolina) won the game last week. They hit a big, long run."

Despite the issues for players like Jones, Josh Allen and others, the UK defensive coaches feel good about what they'll get from them in the future — maybe even the near future.

There were assignment mistakes and technique mistakes, mistakes about being a freshman caught in the moment, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

"They're all gonna be good players, and I'm not discouraged with any of them," Eliot said. "It just was a good learning moment for them."

Wildcat reversal?

The Wildcat package could play just as big of a role in this season's Kentucky-South Carolina game as it did last year when the Cats (namely running back Jojo Kemp) took the formation and ran all over the Gamecocks in an upset.

But the Wildcat and Kemp haven't been discussed this week at all, the coaches and the junior said.

"We don't talk about it at all," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "The only part of the Wildcat we talk about with Kemp is why he had the success he had, which was getting downhill right now, which is why he did a better job."

For his part, Kemp said he wasn't interested in living off the memories of last season's game when his 17 carries equaled 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina.

"That's the past, I'm trying to make new plays," he said.

The Wildcat formation, which UK didn't run in its first game this season, was commonplace for the Gamecocks in their opener against North Carolina.

The Tar Heels snapped the ball to five different players in that game, which head coach Mark Stoops said UK is prepared to see again.

"It really doesn't matter to us who they snap to outside of the quarterback," Stoops said. "Obviously it's something different when it's not their quarterback, and so we've made preparations for that."

The challenges that direct-snap style created last year for South Carolina are some of the same ones UK will face.

"That Wildcat's tough to defend because it's an extra number, and it's an athlete back there carrying the football, so it's all a numbers game," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "So you've got to, one, be able to get off blocks because they got an extra player back there, and two, you've got to be prepared for that. And the players got to understand when the quarterback is not back there, what they can expect and how to defend it."

Hanging with Mr. Cooper

One of the most dangerous players in that Wildcat formation is Gamecocks Mr. Everything Pharoh Cooper.

The 5-foot-11, 207-pound junior wide receiver is capable of wearing many hats for South Carolina and owns five career plays of 70 or more yards (two rushes and three catches).

He returns punts, catches passes (set the school record for receiving yards in a game last season with 233) and rushes the ball (averages 8.3 yards per carry in his career and has rushed 51 times for 422 yards and three scores).

Cooper, who had six catches for 83 yards in Lexington last season, also is capable of throwing the ball, completing eight of 13 passes for 101 yards and three scores.

"He's a difference maker. He really is," Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said of the former high school quarterback. "You've got to be well-prepared for their 'Wildcat' package and just everything. Just him, wherever he lines up, whether he's under center or at the different places they play him, he's a difference maker.

"You have to be aware of where he's at. He's a guy that can definitely change the outcome of games, so you have to be prepared for him."

'I'm not one to be spouting off'

The extended Stoops family and the Spurrier family are a close-knit group with a long history, but in the few times that Mark Stoops has run into South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier since that shocker at Commonwealth Stadium, the game hasn't come up.

"Believe me, I've only been in this a short time as a head coach, but I know what goes around comes around, so I'm not one to be spouting off about anybody," Stoops joked this week. "Just minding myself."

Stoops also knows that Spurrier has a long history of beating up on Kentucky, going 20-2 over the Wildcats in his coaching tenure, including 8-2 over UK while at South Carolina. If Spurrier gets the victory Saturday, he also will become the first Division I coach to have 21 wins over any single opponent.

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