John Clay

For Kentucky and the SEC, real football can’t come soon enough

So Mark Stoops wasn’t digging his defense in last Saturday’s Kentucky football scrimmage. Not playing to its strength, the UK coach said. Doesn’t help that safety Davonte Robinson is out for the year with a quad tear. Then Tuesday there was Eddie Gran griping about pre-snap penalties on his side of the ball. Ridiculous, said the offensive coordinator.

Problems, problems, problems.

In other words, join the club.

Less than two weeks before Florida and Miami kick things off in Orlando, and less than three weeks before the rest of the SEC pulls on the shoulder pads for real, the league is full of troubling reports that actually are just par for the course during the early days of camp before the hard stuff takes hold.

Just look at Tennessee, where second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt has suffered eight — count ‘em, eight — medial retirements on the offensive line since the end of last season. Six of those have come on the offensive line, the latest being Nathan Niehaus, who started six games last season. That followed the retirement of senior linebacker Darrin Kirkland and the loss of defensive end Emmit Gooden for the season, both because of knee injuries.

Now move over to Alabama, where Nick Saban had Mike Tyson in to talk to his team, though presumably not about the former heavyweight boxing champion’s claim that he smokes about $40,000 worth of weed a month. Meanwhile, on the field, the Tide has already lost prize freshman Trey Sanders, the top-ranked running back in the 2019 class, to a possibly season-ending foot injury.

Then there’s Florida, where most of the preseason problems are off the field. We’re now at five Gators who have faced accusations of violence against women since Dan Mullen took over as head coach before last season. The latest caused sophomore defensive back John Huggins to be booted from the team, though not before Mullen defended his program.

“We do a lot, you know,” Mullen said. “I mean, how many of them are actually charged?”

On the field, the Gators lost defensive back C.J. McWilliams for the season to an Achilles tear, further depleting Florida’s secondary depth, especially after prize recruit Chris Steele transferred to USC. Steele didn’t like rooming with quarterback Jalon Jones, who has since left the program after he, too, was accused of alleged sexual battery.

At South Carolina, the Gamecocks fear that defensive tackle Devontae Davis is done for the season after the junior college transfer suffered a serious foot sprain in camp. And tight end Evan Hinson, a former basketball player for Frank Martin, is scheduled to undergo heart surgery because of an irregular heartbeat.

At Arkansas, which comes to Kroger Field on Oct. 12, the Razorbacks have lost redshirt freshman offensive lineman Noah Gatlin to a torn ACL. He started two games last season for Coach Chad Morris, who is hoping to improve off a 2-10 season.

Meanwhile, at Missouri they’re trying to get past the put-a-ring-on-it controversy involving new quarterback Kelly Bryant. The Clemson transfer was denied a national title ring by his former coach, Dabo Swinney, even though Bryant started four Tigers games last season, including a key win at Texas A&M. Oh, well. Mizzou is probably more worried about preseason All-American tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who has been hampered by a sprained right knee during camp.

There are plenty more where those came from. Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said his team’s first scrimmage lacked juice. Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn liked his team’s defense in the Tigers’ 84-play scrimmage, but he was less complimentary of his offense. Vanderbilt has new “Battle Ready” alternate uniforms. And Ole Miss Coach Matt Luke summed it up rather nicely about the Rebels’ first scrimmage.

“For me,” he said, “nobody ever wins.”

Not until we start seeing some real games.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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