Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers
Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers
One of the major focuses for Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown heading into the week was improving the running game.
After the Wildcats opened the year with at least 230 rushing yards in three of their first five games, Kentucky has faced stout defensive efforts from its last two foes, at LSU and vs. No. 1 Mississippi State last week.
In those games, the Tigers limited UK to 71 rushing yards and the Bulldogs held UK to 103 yards on the ground.
"Well, I think it's two-fold," Brown said, pinpointing the obstacles in running the football the last two weeks. "I think, No. 1, let's not -- I think I said this after the game too -- let's not take away from those guys. I mean, they're good. You know what I mean? 91, Preston Smith is a really good player, a guy that will make a solid living in the NFL. The two d-tackles are really big. They really rotate four in there. So they gave us some issues, but we had some technique. We leaned, and when you lean good players are going to put their hands inside and go around you. We didn't do a good job getting depth, and our communication was off a little bit. So, we can play better. Our guys are disappointed in how they played up front, and we had a good practice, maybe our best practice in probably a couple weeks up front, today. So, (offensive line) Coach (John) Schlarman will get those guys straight."
When Brown met with the media following Tuesday's practice, he emphasized improving the rushing attack before the Wildcats travel to Missouri for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff on the SEC Network on Saturday.
"Well, first of all, I've got to give them more opportunities," Brown said about getting the running back's involved. "When we get those opportunities, we've got to run through some tackles. And we've got to hold onto the ball. Running back is a lot like a guy that shoots a lot in basketball: you can't just go out there and give a shooter a couple shots. You've got to get him open, and we've got to do the same thing. We've got to feed the running backs and get them in a rhythm."
Kentucky (6-2, 2-3 SEC) boasts a strong stable of running options, including junior Braylon Heard - who has started seven of eight games in 2014 - sophomore Jojo Kemp, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams. Kemp leads UK with 314 yards and four TDs, with Heard charting 299 yards, Williams - who missed last week due to injury - contributing 222 yards and the bruising Horton totaling 201 yards.
"Well, it helps us," Brown said about potentially getting Williams back on the field Saturday. "I mean, he's one of our better players. And he will play as long as he doesn't have anything that sets him back this week. He'll play. Excited to get him back. He's a guy that we can get in space. I think he's eager to get back on the field. I don't think he played his best game against LSU. He realizes that, and he'll add a spark to us for sure."
UK sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles has also been a dual-threat option for Brown, leading the team with 90 carries, running for 174 yards, and equaling Kemp for the team lead with four TDs.
"Early in the game it does." Brown said about getting Towles settled into the game with an early rush and contact. "Yeah, it does, really. When he has success early in games and when he does get in the flow, whether running or pass, high-percentage pass, I he does get going."
Brown's unit faces another stiff road test on Saturday with Mizzou, the defending Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Champions.
"Missouri is playing with a lot of confidence," Brown said. "Two really good years in a row. They're playing their best football right now, starting to gain some momentum on offense. They've played good defense all the time. Got a lot of respect for their DC, Coach (Dave) Steckel. Does a good job consistently -- they do a good job evaluating talent, very similar to Mississippi State."
Missouri (6-2, 3-1 SEC) ranks second in the SEC in total defense (310 ypg) and third in scoring defense (20.2) in conference games. Last week, Missouri held Vanderbilt to just 240 yards of offense in a 24-14 win, after limiting Florida to 283 yards in a 42-13 win in Gainesville.
"We've got another stiff test this week with their front," Brown said. "They're going to move a lot. They twist, they don't sit still. They do a good job of speed rushing, and they're defense is built on making negative plays. They've got some linebackers that have got a lot of tackles, solid tacklers, and they've got safeties that have experience. Little bit of youth at corner, similar to what we are at wideout. But again, a tremendous challenge. Tough place to go up and play, but our guys will be ready and like I said, we need to put it all together this week."
With only three former Cats picking up wins in the NFL's Week 8, seven UK alumni went home with losses. Nevertheless, a familiar face was able to extend his league-leading touchdown total, while one young player achieved a career milestone.
Another former Wildcat--Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay--saw no action on the field in his team's historic thrashing at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Neither team recorded a single punt, marking the Packers' second such performance in four weeks, and only the third of its kind in NFL history.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (5-3)
Despite his team's 44-23 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Randall Cobb came away with five catches for 126 yards and a 70-yard touchdown grab. Cobb's ninth touchdown of the season moved him into a tie for first place among all NFL receivers.
Juxtaposing his team's bumbling two-win 2014 campaign, Avery Williamson has continued to put together a sensational rookie season in terms of personal performance. The 6-foot-1 Tennessee native recorded a career-high 10 tackles and his first professional sack in the Titans' 30-16 loss to the Houston Texans.
Playing alongside Williamson on the Titans defense, Woodyard assisted in two tackles and logged four more of his own. Woodyard has combined for 49 total tackles on the season.
Three Sweet 16s. Two Elite-Eights. A Southeastern Conference title. A 43 points on national TV in a football stadium. The list goes on and on.
But for the UK guard, plenty remains to be done. And she's put in a lot of time and effort to reach new heights in her last season at UK.
A player of O'Neill's stature -- having among other stellar credentials wowed a national audience with that school-record scoring performance in AT&T Stadium last season -- could be forgiven for lacking motivation. Yet given the work the senior has been putting in building up to the 2014-15 season, inspiration doesn't seem to be in short supply.
The fire that burns inside O'Neill is unique to her.
"So much motivates me," O'Neill said. "Definitely my mom, who set the bar high. My family, I want to be an example to my younger siblings and cousins. I read a quote that said, 'Work hard in silence and let your success speak for itself.'
"That's my mindset. I'm not worried about what people have to say about me, what people think about me. If I know what I'm doing, and I know I'm doing the right thing then I have nothing to worry about."
For her part O'Neill has always put in plenty of time in pursuit of improvement, but four years into her journey as a college basketball player, she has a more effective and efficient practice routine.
"When I first got here I was really out of shape, so I worked on my fitness and nutrition," O'Neill said. "I started taking it seriously and understanding when I was able to eat certain things at what time. Not counting calories, but really watching what I ate, when I ate it, at the time I ate it and stuff like that.
"Now I really work on my mechanics. Little things I could do to get better. As far as footwork, making sure how my follow-through goes so my wrist isn't twisted to the side. I'm constantly working with the coaches as much as possible. I get as many shots up as I can. Really that's it, just my mechanics and technique is what I'm working on right now."
As a player O'Neill can always work on her game, but as a senior expected to play substantial minutes, she could also be called on to assume a leadership role.
The role of veteran leader is a bit novel to O'Neill, but it's one she has already started growing into.
"I talk a lot more now," O'Neill said. "Sometimes I get quiet and I don't even realize it until Matthew (Mitchell) says things or my teammates say something. I'm definitely talking a lot more than I ever have since I've been here.
"I'm trying to lead by example by really showing my teammates what they need to do in order to get better. It's something I didn't do my freshman year."
While O'Neill may not have initially been comfortable showing the way to her teammates, some of the UK Hoops newcomers have taken notice of O'Neill's influence early this year.
"Players like Jennifer O'Neill have taken me under their wing," freshman Alexis Jennings said. "She's made me feel like I'm sisters with everyone on the team already. She's been here a while, and I can count on her to give it to me straight. Every practice she encourages me."
Indeed O'Neill's embrace of a role as a mentor was likely outside her comfort zone, but it's indicative of the attitude she's taken on since arriving at UK.
"I've grown up a lot; I've learned a lot," O'Neill said. "I've been exposed to a lot of knowledge from coaches. They have just passed their knowledge down to me and just showed me what I needed to do. How I need to improve."
He couldn't help but interject on occasion, but he spent most of his time watching his two platoons go head to head.
It was in those moments as an observer that he realized just how unique a coaching challenge he's created for himself. The thing is, he's created the same challenge for his peers.
"The issues I'm going to have, the other coach is going to have, too," Calipari said.
Given the opportunity, any opposing coaches who happened to tune in to UK's annual preseason scrimmage surely would trade places with Coach Cal.
Kentucky's unmatched depth was on display, with seven players scoring in double figures. Devin Booker led the way with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, while Andrew Harrison had 19 for the Blue team, which came away with a 94-66 victory.
Though the final score wasn't close, this edition of the Blue-White Scrimmage was a departure from years past.
"I think we all could see that we were all really competing hard at each other and acting like it was a Louisville-Kentucky game, but it was against each other," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who impressed with 18 points and nine rebounds. "We really went hard at each other, but we had a lot of fun. I definitely had fun. I really enjoyed today and I just can't wait to play with the other team on our team."
"The other team on our team." That serves to illustrate what the Cats will try to do when they're all wearing the same color uniform.
For the better part of three months now, Coach Cal has been preparing his team to play the two-platoon system. Nonetheless, he can't be sure from games on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour, practices or the scrimmage exactly what it's going to be like to coach the system when he doesn't have free rein to reset the score with 11:30 remaining as he did on Monday.
"I don't know," Calipari said. "We're going to find out. We haven't done it yet. Today we just played a bunch of guys."
Slightly more thought went into it than that.
The Blue team -- before Cal switched up the squads -- was comprised of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Towns. White's starters were Tyler Ulis, Booker, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins split time between the two teams.
"You want to have a point guard on each group," Calipari said. "You want to have some size on each group. And how do they fit together?"
Experience is also a consideration.
"I'll probably try some different combos," Calipari said. "I kind of like two freshmen on a team, three vets on a team. It gives it some balance."
With all the thought Calipari is putting into the composition of the two platoons, the players are steering clear of concerning themselves with who belongs on which team. They're just playing.
"The combinations we don't worry about," Towns said. "We just worry about going out there and doing everything we need to do to get a W. That's not our job. Our job is to go out there and execute the plan Coach Calipari gives us."
The plan is clear, though the particulars are still a work in progress. There's no manual for what UK is about to try.
"We're just going to see what happens," Calipari said. "I mean, I'm committed to it. It's the best thing for these players. Now we got to make it the best thing for our team."