John Clay

Kentucky football’s defense should have no excuses in 2018

Kentucky linebacker Joshua Paschal (4) and defensive end Denzil Ware (35) stop South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley (19) during UK’s win over the Gamecocks at William Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Sept 16, 2017. Ware has announced he will return for his senior season.
Kentucky linebacker Joshua Paschal (4) and defensive end Denzil Ware (35) stop South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley (19) during UK’s win over the Gamecocks at William Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Sept 16, 2017. Ware has announced he will return for his senior season. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Random notes:

▪  With Josh Allen, Denzil Ware and Mike Edwards all announcing they will return for their senior seasons, the Kentucky football defense has no excuses in 2018.

Despite head coach Mark Stoops’ defensive background, UK finished 93rd nationally in total defense in 2017, the worst finish in his five years as UK’s head coach.

In fact, the Cats have suffered ranking regression the past two years from 59th in 2015 — its highest ranking under Stoops — to 85th in 2016 to 93rd this past season.

The return of Allen, Ware and Edwards should give Kentucky 10 returning starters on defense next season, which will also be the second year for Matt House as defensive coordinator.

▪  So Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson played his senior season with injuries that will require surgeries on both shoulders and his left knee. I think that qualifies as toughness.

▪  Kentucky is No. 8 in the college baseball preseason rankings by the website D-1 Baseball for 2018. That’s not No. 8 in the SEC but No. 8 in the country. In fact, Nick Mingione’s club is one of five SEC teams in the top 10. Florida is No. 1, followed by Arkansas at No. 4, UK eighth, Ole Miss ninth and Texas A&M 10th.

▪  Disclaimer: I needed the Vikings’ 61-yard TD on the final play to beat the Saints and lift my NFL divisional playoff predictions to 2-2. My picks for the title games: Patriots over Jaguars in the AFC and Vikings over Eagles in the NFC.

▪  Steelers fans are no doubt still bleeding from the head-scratching over several of Coach Mike Tomlin’s decisions during Pittsburgh’s loss to Jacksonville.

▪  It was a tough weekend for West Virginia basketball. Saturday, the Mountaineers lost 72-71 at Texas Tech and a WVU player was accused of punching a Texas Tech student when Red Raiders fans stormed the court. On Monday, WVU blew a 16-point lead and lost to Kansas 71-66.

▪  At least Kansas Coach Bill Self wore the windbreaker WVU coach and fashionista Bob Huggins gifted him before the game. Wonder if Huggs will have something similar for his friend John Calipari when Kentucky comes to Morgantown on Jan. 27 for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge?

▪  Could the best college basketball player in the state be Louisville’s Asia Durr? After all, Durr scored 36 points last week as No. 3 U of L destroyed No. 2 Notre Dame 100-67.

▪  If you missed it, former Madison Southern star Damien Harris announced he will return for his senior season at Alabama, where he will be be trying for his third national championship while playing for his third different offensive coordinator in four seasons. Harris has rushed for 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons — 1,040 in 2016 and an even 1,000 in 2017.

▪  Remember the amiable John Servis, trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones, as well as 2017 Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia? Servis’ brother Jason, also a trainer, has one of the early 2018 Kentucky Derby favorites in Firenze Fire, who won the Jerome at Aqueduct last Saturday.

▪  After an 0-4 OVC start, Eastern Kentucky carries a two-game win streak into Thursday’s game against visiting Tennessee Tech. Murray State, Belmont and Austin Peay are all three tied atop the league at 5-1.

▪  Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky is following up nicely on last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance. Monday’s 70-55 win over Cleveland State improved John Brannen’s club to 12-6 overall and 5-1 in the Horizon League.

▪  Is Archie Miller’s system starting to catch on at Indiana? After an 8-7 start, the Hoosiers have won three straight, including a 20-point romp over Northwestern on Sunday. IU plays at a suddenly struggling Michigan State on Friday.

▪  RIP Keith Jackson, the legendary broadcaster who passed away over the weekend and who for a very long period of time was televised college football.

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