John Clay

A new Kentucky football team shows its potential in win over Toledo

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For Kentucky football, this isn’t 2018.

And that’s not such a bad thing.

No one is ready to predict a second successive double-digit win season based on the Wildcats’ 38-24 victory over the Toledo Rockets on Saturday afternoon at Kroger Field, but we saw enough out of Mark Stoops’ young troops to be cautiously optimistic about where this team is pointed.

After all, the old stars are gone. Time for the new stars. Such is the way of college football, where in UK’s case a host of lead players — names like Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Mike Edwards, CJ Conrad and Lonnie Johnson, to name just a few — have moved on, leaving the door open for former understudies to move in.

“This is our team now,” Stoops said after the win. “And it was, it was such a dominant personality team a year ago. We have some guys that will flourish this year and let them find their voice and be leaders. It’ll come. So we just got to continue to stay the course and get better. I want to see our identity grow.”

Guys like DeAndre Square, a sophomore linebacker from Detroit. As a true freshman last year, Square subbed for senior backer Jordan Jones. Saturday, he recorded a team-leading 11 tackles, a sack and an acrobatic interception.

“DeAndre played lights out,” teammate Josh Paschal said.

Postgame question to Square: Do you think you put some teams on notice they’re going to have to pay attention to where No. 17 is?

“Uh, yeah,” said Square with the shy smile of someone who freely admits to being far less vocal than his fellow starter at linebacker, Kash Daniel. “Yeah.”

Then there’s Paschal. No one is going to replace Allen, the two-star prospect who turned into an all-world edge rusher. But Paschal might be an even better personal story considering the sophomore from Maryland missed most of last season after being diagnosed with skin cancer. He’s not only healthy now, but he’s a starter and potential star. Saturday, Paschal had four tackles and a sack.

“I’m just happy to be back out there with my brothers,” he said afterward.

And don’t forget a new face, Brandin Echols, the juco transfer from Mississippi who was hobbled by a hamstring injury at the start of camp. Saturday, the defensive back had three pass breakups and a near interception.

“Today was the first day I trusted my hamstring,” Echols said.

On offense, no one is going to replace Snell, UK’s career rushing leader. No one player, anyway. So co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Eddie Gran went ballcarrier-by-committee, employing AJ Rose (64 yards on 16 carries), Kavosiey Smoke (78 on seven) and Chris Rodriguez (34 on five) to get the job done.

“I feel like it’s good to have three running backs,” said Smoke, the redshirt freshman who scored on a 40-yard run. “It’s fresh legs every possession.”

Stoops wasn’t happy with Rodriguez and star receiver Lynn Bowden putting the ball on the ground, which resulted in Toledo fumble recoveries. The head coach wasn’t happy that his defense had trouble getting off the field on third down in the first half. And his young secondary got off to a shaky start before settling down.

“You’re frustrated in a lot of ways,” said the coach afterward. “But that’s OK.”

After all, Toledo did not fit the recipe for a non-conference cupcake. A recent Mid-American Conference power, the Rockets are intent on rebounding from last year’s 7-6 mark. Ex-UK running back Bryant Koback, who transferred to Toledo after a redshirt year in Lexington, rushed for 73 yards and a score. Quarterback Mitchell Guadagni scrambled his way to 73 yards before leaving the game after a targeting call led to UK linebacker Chris Oats being ejected.

“I’m ready to roll with this football team, ready to rock with these guys,” said Toledo coach Jason Candle afterward.

Stoops’ guys are ready to rock, too — guys who have waited for their time to shine.

“We’re all hungry,” Square said.

It’s not 2018. It’s 2019, and Saturday was a good start.

Next game

Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPNU or SEC Network alternate channel

Records: Kentucky 1-0, Eastern Michigan 1-0

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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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