John Clay

Stoops needs to hire special teams coach

Georgia wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie ran back a punt return in the third quarter.
Georgia wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie ran back a punt return in the third quarter.

We can debate about Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator and the direction of the Kentucky defense, but there is one phase of the game where there isn’t much debate.

The decision not to hire a single special-teams coordinator and instead spread the duties out among the staff has probably not worked as well as Coach Mark Stoops had hoped, with Saturday night’s 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt offering up more examples.

Down by four points with 10 minutes to go in the game, UK lined up for a field goal attempt at the Vanderbilt 32-yard line only to discover there were just 10 men on the field. By the time offensive tackle Jordan Swindle made it from the sideline to his position, UK was called for a delay of game penalty.

Afterward, Stoops said Swindle, who had been injured on Kentucky’s previous series, was “confused” and thought he was being replaced on the field goal unit. Stoops said he elected to take the five-yard penalty because he wanted to hold onto his timeouts for late in the game. He didn’t believe the five-yard penalty would make a difference.

It did. The usually reliable Austin MacGinnis missed from 37 yards.

On Kentucky’s next possession, Vanderbilt blocked Landon Foster’s punt, giving the Commodores the football at the UK 38-yard line with 6:56 to go. Vanderbilt couldn’t do anything with it, going three-and-out, but the Commodores’ punt backed UK up to its own 13-yard line for what turned out to be the Cats’ final possession.

90th Kentucky’s rank nationally for covering punts, allowing 10.5 per return

The scenario was symbolic of how the special teams have performed during UK’s five-game losing streak. Here’s the laundry list:

In the 30-27 loss to Auburn, Kentucky was caught with just eight men on the field for a punt return when Stoops thought Gus Malzahn was going for it on a fourth-and-short out of a timeout. By the time UK realized Auburn was punting, there was confusion trying to run the defense off and the punt return team on the field.

In the 42-16 loss at Mississippi State, UK was forced to take a timeout when the field goal unit was late getting on the field. That time, Stoops took the timeout to avoid the delay of game penalty, but MacGinnis still missed the 48-yard field goal.

In the 52-21 loss to Tennessee, UK allowed Evan Berry to return a kickoff for a touchdown and Cameron Sutton to return a punt for a touchdown on successive possessions. The kickoff return covered 100 yards. The punt return covered 84 yards.

And in the 27-3 loss at Georgia, Ryan Timmons fumbled away a punt at his own 25-yard line.

When Stoops arrived at UK in 2013, he hired Bradley Dale Peveto as his special teams and safeties coach, but Peveto left after one season to join Les Miles at LSU. Stoops then hired Craig Naivar to coach special teams and safeties, but Naivar left after one season to join Tom Herman’s staff at Houston.

This year, Stoops decided on a different approach. Instead of hiring a special teams and safeties coach, he decided to help Derrick Ansley coach the secondary and hired Andy Buh to coach the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Stoops then spread special teams duties among his staff, a strategy that other schools have used.

With two games to play, however, Kentucky is 81st nationally in punt return yardage, averaging just seven yards a return. UK is 90th nationally in covering punts, allowing 10.5 per return. And the Cats are 105th nationally in net punting.

In the past two years, Kentucky has allowed six returns for touchdowns — three punts and three kickoffs. Meanwhile, UK hasn’t returned either a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown since 2009. Randall Cobb took a punt to the house that year. Derrick Locke took a kickoff to the end zone that same season.

Kentucky is one of six SEC teams that have not returned a punt for a touchdown this year. The SEC record of those six teams is a combined 15-26. Teams that have returned a punt for a TD this year are 32-21

Charlotte at Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: SEC Network