This might be the 2017 college football season’s first upset: When Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops interviewed Dean Hood to become UK’s new special teams coach, his first question was not about Hood’s plan to improve the Wildcats’ punting.
“Really, when Coach Stoops and I talked, it really was never about scheme,” says Hood, the former Eastern Kentucky University head man (2008-15). “It was more just a conversation. It really never was ‘Hey, tell me what you do on punt?’”
For the past two seasons, what UK has “done on punt” has been consistently not kick the ball very far. Kentucky has ranked 12th or worse in the Southeastern Conference in punting the past two years.
So in the run up to Kentucky’s 2017 season opener at Southern Mississippi on Sept. 2, Stoops has been blunt about the state of UK’s punting.
“You’ve seen us punt,” Stoops said at Kentucky’s media day. “We need to do a better job.”
Hood’s plan to ensure better Kentucky punting in 2017 is to introduce competition for the starting job.
McKinniss, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound sophomore from Findlay, Ohio, is the incumbent. He earned a UK scholarship with a strong showing in a Wildcats summer football camp in 2015. Five days later, he committed to Kentucky.
Early last year, McKinniss showed talent. At Florida in his second college game, McKinniss punted five times for a 43.4 yards average. In UK’s fifth game at Alabama, McKinniss averaged 44.7 yards a kick and boomed a season-best 61-yarder.
After his strong showing in Tuscaloosa, however, McKinniss struggled. He averaged less than 40 yards a kick six times in the final eight games.
A psychology major, McKinniss is trying to rebuild his confidence based off mental visualization of how well he kicked at Florida and Alabama.
“They were my two best games, so I always try to think back to those,” McKinniss says. “I hit the ball good in those games, so I know I am capable of it.”
To find a challenger to McKinniss, Hood drew on contacts he made in Australia during his time at EKU. Current Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry, an Australian, starred for Hood at Eastern Kentucky.
Some of the same people who helped Berry enter American college football linked Hood with punter Matt Panton. A Melbourne, Australia, native, Panton came to UK as a graduate transfer from Columbia University.
Panton originally went to the Ivy League school to compete in rowing. However, the 6-4, 230-pounder had grown up “kicking Australian footballs,” and had a yearning to try American football.
“I joined the (Columbia football) team my sophomore year. I ended up playing a lot my junior year,” Panton said. “I wanted to keep playing but I graduated from Columbia, and they don’t let you play in graduate school there. So I came to Kentucky. I wanted to play some big-time football.”
At Columbia, Panton was used as a “coffin corner” punter whose job was to pin opponents inside their 20-yard-line. Last season, he averaged 40.5 yards on 42 punts, with 17 of those ending inside the 20.
“I’m very much an Australian-style (punter),” Panton says. “I usually do the end-over-end punts. But I can do pretty much whatever the coaches want me to do.”
Hood, 53, is assuming the UK special teams coaching duties from Matt House, who moved up to Kentucky defensive coordinator after one year on Stoops’ staff.
In senior Austin MacGinnis, Hood inherits a kicker coming off an exceptional year (16-of-19 field goals, two game-winning kicks).
UK’s coverage units, both punts and kickoffs, also excelled in 2016. Kentucky allowed foes only 19.5 yards, on average, on kickoff returns and 5.4 yards on punt returns.
For Hood, job one in 2017 will be to maintain the high level of the UK coverage teams — but give the punt unit better, more consistent kicks to cover.
Noting that Panton excels at rugby-style punting and McKinniss is a traditional “pocket punter,” Hood says UK just might create a guessing game for foes by using both.
“That’s definitely not out of the question,” Hood says.
Scouting the Cats
The main man: As a junior in 2016, kicker Austin MacGinnis was one of Kentucky’s most valuable players. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound product of Wedowee, Ala., hit last-second field goals of 51- and 47-yards respectively to produce UK’s victories over Mississippi State and No. 11 Louisville. For the season, MacGinnis hit 16 of 19 field goal tries. For his Kentucky career, MacGinnis is 50-for-63 on field goals and 107-for-109 on PATs. With 257 career points, MacGinnis needs 49 points to pass Lones Seiber (305) as Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer.
The supporting cast: After a challenging true freshman season in 2016, incumbent punter Grant McKinniss is battling Australian Matt Panton, a graduate transfer from Columbia University, to keep the punting job. In 2016, Charles Walker gave Kentucky its first punt return touchdown since 2010 with a 65-yard TD against New Mexico State. Otherwise, Walker averaged only 3.8 yards per punt return. UK used five different kickoff returners a season ago with so-so results. Only two of those five, running backs Sihiem King and Benny Snell, are back. Lavishly hyped incoming true freshman wideout Lynn Bowden could make his biggest initial impact returning kicks.
Outlook: In his one year as UK special teams coordinator, Matt House — now the Kentucky defensive coordinator — fielded impressive kick coverage teams. Last season, Kentucky held opponents to only 19.5 yards per kickoff return and only 5.4 yards per punt return. New Wildcats special team coach Dean Hood, the former Eastern Kentucky head man, will seek to maintain the kick coverage momentum while finding more consistency in the punting and juicing UK’s return game.
Kentucky at Southern Mississippi
4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2 (CBS Sports)