UK Football

Kentucky football working to plug holes in woeful run defense

Kent State running back Trayion Durham (34) averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown against the Cats’ porous run defense on Sept. 8.
Kent State running back Trayion Durham (34) averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored a touchdown against the Cats’ porous run defense on Sept. 8. Herald-Leader

If Kentucky is going to make any kind of run this season, it's going to have to learn how to stop the run. And if the Cats are going to pick a time to start, Saturday would be good.

Statistically, the trip to No. 14 Florida looks like a disaster waiting to happen for Kentucky.

These are not the pass-happy Gators of old.

They're a physical, pounding offense that's No. 23 in the nation and third in the Southeastern Conference in rushing. They are averaging 232.7 yards a game and 5.25 yards per carry.

"They have a lot of ways to attack you in the rushing game and they're getting production," UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter said of the Gators, who are paced by senior Mike Gillislee, who has 346 yards and four touchdowns in three games. His 115.3 yards a game leads the league.

Gillislee is often flanked by a Wildcat formation-style quarterback, Trey Burton, who broke free for an 80-yard scoring run while blasting Tennessee last week in Knoxville.

"They're very diverse, much more so than what I remember in the past," Minter continued. "So the challenges are great."

Florida will match up with a UK team that hasn't been able to stop the run in any of its three games this season. The Cats are 92nd in the nation and second from the bottom of the league against the run, allowing 188 yards a game.

So who's to blame?

"Everybody," Coach Joker Phillips said Wednesday. "When they're rushing for 200-plus on you, that's not just the defensive line. They've had some big plays on us also. The second- and third-line defense has to be there also to stop that."

There were lots of theories from players and coaches about why their run defense has been so poor this season, but each of them seemed rooted in the same concept: UK has to get better at tackling and become more physical.

"We're not a good tackling team right now; we're not," Phillips said of the Cats, who lost three of their top four tacklers from last season in linebackers Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ronnie Sneed.

But inexperience doesn't fully explain the tackling issue. "A lot of it has to do with youth, but even some of our older guys are not real good tackling guys," Phillips said. "We've got to continue to stress it."

Martavius Neloms, the Cats' top returning tackler from last season, said it's a mind-set.

"We have to make sure we're being the aggressor, not let them bring the fight to us, we have to bring the fight to the offense," he said.

Sophomore Alvin "Bud" Dupree agreed.

"It's all a mind thing," he said when asked how the team could go about being more physical. "You have to think, 'I'm going to be physical. I'm going to hit you hard.' If you're thinking you're going to take the lick rather than deliver the lick, you're in the wrong place. We've just got to go ahead and hit them."

In the overtime loss to Western Kentucky last week, Kentucky was out-muscled at the line of scrimmage and lost many of its one-on-one battles.

When asked how running back Antonio Andrews was able to get into the end zone twice untouched on 1-yard runs, Minter blamed himself in part. The defensive coordinator said one of the plays involved him putting the defense in the wrong alignment.

The other was the defense being out-muscled.

"Very poor defense; very poor defense," Minter said when asked about those two scores specifically. "I was embarrassed by our defense on the goal line.

"We're not getting off the blocks, striking and knocking guys back, making it second-and-9 instead of second-and-5. That's where we've got to just get better. Part of it's our youth; part of it's our inside. We've got to shake our guys up some inside sometimes."

In short yardage situations, Kentucky has been especially susceptible.

For instance, in the Cats' three games this season, opponents have run the ball 11 times on third-and-4 or fewer yards.

On nine of those 11 tries, the opponent has gotten the first down.

Kentucky is the worst in the league at allowing foes to convert on third down, permitting the first down 47.8 percent of the time (22 of 46).

Injury report

Running back CoShik Williams (hip strain) is "really doubtful," Phillips said. Cornerback Cartier Rice (thigh bruise) is day to day. Tight end Gabe Correll (hip flexor) and linebacker/safety Josh Forrest (thigh bruise) are both out.

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