One of the fiercest battles of Kentucky’s preseason football camp is at a position you hope you never use.
“You are splitting hairs (between the two) right now,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said Monday. “We’ll let them keep on battling and see what happens.”
For the past four years, Landon Foster handled the Kentucky punting. At the end of an overall solid UK career, Foster went out on an off note in 2015.
UK was 12th in the SEC in net punting (35.7 yards) last year and tied for 12th in punts downed inside the opponents’ 20 (14).
It was a rough season overall for the Kentucky special teams. Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis — a consensus All-SEC First Team choice in 2014 — battled a groin injury and kicked in only 10 games. UK was 11th of the 14 SEC teams in kickoff returns (averaging 21 yards a return). Kentucky’s kick coverage had its low point on Halloween Night when the Cats allowed Tennessee to return both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
After going through last year without a dedicated special teams coach, Stoops hired Matt House to serve as special teams coordinator and coach the inside linebackers.
A former defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Florida International, the raspy-voiced House spent 2008 as a special teams assistant with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“I learned a ton of different things,” House says of his year with the Panthers. “Just being detailed in the kicking game. Just putting personnel in positions to be successful. And, truthfully, just how valuable and important the fundamentals are.”
House says the kickoff coverage and return principles he learned in the NFL are applicable to college football. But “the punt game is a lot different because in the NFL, those guys can’t leave the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked,” House said. “In college football, you can leave the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.”
The biggest decision of House’s first Kentucky season will be who does UK’s punting.
McKinniss, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound product of Findlay, Ohio, earned a Kentucky scholarship offer after punting in a Wildcats camp last summer.
“I punted pretty well, and I think that got their attention,” McKinniss says. “That’s how I really started talking to (Kentucky). Five days later, I committed.”
Last year at Findlay High School, McKinniss averaged 39.4 yards a punt and placed 11 of his 32 kicks inside the foes’ 20.
Kirshe, a willowy 6-foot, 150-pounder, actually punted once for UK in a game last season, a 31-yard kick against Eastern Kentucky.
His road to Kentucky — and into punting — is interesting. Born in Boston, Kirshe became an accomplished youth hockey player as a center and left wing. Even after his family moved to Florida, Kirshe continued with hockey as his main sport.
“Every weekend, I was flying to Canada (for hockey), so I was only at school, like, Tuesday, Wednesday, sometimes Thursday,” Kirshe says. “My grades were falling down, so my parents said I had to give up hockey.”
Removed from the Canadian ice rinks, Kirshe started tagging along to shag balls while his older brother, Sean, practiced place-kicking. Sean would kick off, then Bryan would punt the ball back.
One thing led to another, and soon the Kirshe brothers comprised the kicking game for the Out-of-Door Academy, the older sibling handling the placements and the younger the punts.
As a senior, Bryan Kirshe averaged a booming 49.5 yards on 56 punts. The website Prokicker.com rated him the number one high school punter of 2014.
Though Kirshe had been searching for a college where the incumbent punter was a senior, he ultimately agreed to walk on with Kentucky in 2014 even though Foster was entering his junior year.
“When (Foster) graduated, I was always told it would be a competition,” Kirshe said.
McKinniss and Kirshe are now locked in a hot one.
“One guy skies (the ball) a little better. One does a little better job with rugby kicks,” House said, declining to say which punter did what best.
So at the position a football team hopes never to have to use, the battle to be Kentucky’s next punter is going down to the wire.
“It’s pretty even,” House said. “Both guys need to be more consistent. That’s what we’re battling for right now.”
Kentucky’s special teams
The main man: In spite of battling a lingering groin problem that limited him to 10 games in 2015, place-kicker Austin MacGinnis hit 13 of 17 field goals with a long of 48 yards. Healthy as a redshirt freshman in 2014, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound product of Wedowee, Ala., set the UK single-season record for field goals in a season (21-for-27) and was chosen First Team All-SEC by both The Associated Press and the coaches.
The supporting cast: The punting job vacated by the graduated Landon Foster is a two-man race between true freshman Grant McKinniss, a scholarship player, and walk-on redshirt sophomore Bryan Kirshe. New UK special teams coach Matt House says wide receivers Jeff Badet and Ryan Timmons and safety Mike Edwards are vying for punt return duties, while the same threesome plus running back Sihiem King are contending to return kickoffs. With the graduation of long-snapper Kelly Mason, Blake Best appears to have the upper hand on that role for place-kicks. Best, a redshirt freshman, and sophomore transfer Tristan Yeomans are competing for the long-snapping position on punts.
Outlook: Kentucky did not have one coach assigned to special teams duties a season ago, and when UK struggled in several facets of the kicking game it became a lightning rod of fan criticism. House, a former defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, spent 2008 as a special teams assistant with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. He is now the man in charge of the UK kicking game. UK Coach Mark Stoops said the Wildcats might use both punters, at least early in the season. House says consistency and hang time will likely determine who ultimately claims the punting job. “Distance with no hang time leads to disaster,” House said.
Scouting the Cats: Special teams
This is the sixth of nine stories looking at the 2016 Kentucky football team position by position. Here are the previous stories in the series: