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All signs positive for UK as Vandy game approaches

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With a bye week following a triple-overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky has had ample time to suffer a lapse in focus.

Just two days before a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt, the Wildcats have shown no signs of any such lapse.

"So far, so good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's been a good week of practice. We had a good Thursday today. Guys seemed to be pretty locked in, energetic. So, looking forward to a good game here this weekend."

If anything, the Cats have gone the other way and ramped up the intensity before the Commodores come to town.

"Our coaches have been adamant about just handling our business and doing more this week, being more locked in, spending some extra time around here studying film and doing the little things," Stoops said. "So it seems like they've been very good around here. I hope they are when they leave. We have no reason but to be locked in and hungry for this game."

UK's practice on Thursday was a light one, continuing the coaching staff's new game-week plan of holding a walkthrough and meetings two days before game day and turning up the speed again on Friday. The change was designed to position the Cats to play faster on game day and to this point Stoops has been pleased with the results.

"It seemed to work so far, it really has," Stoops said. "We'll see. Each week is a different test, but I've been pleased. I've felt like we played fast and that was the objective. I felt like we were fresh and played fast in each game. In particular, going down to the Swamp with a big SEC test and playing in the three overtimes. I feel like it's given us what we want."

Opportunities abound for UK in Vandy matchup

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UK takes on Vanderbilt at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK takes on Vanderbilt at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's long wait between games hasn't been any fun.

For two weeks, the Wildcats have had to stew over a triple-overtime loss at Florida. They've thought over and over about all the things, big and small, they could have done to turn a defeat that came by the slimmest of margins into a signature win.

On Saturday against Vanderbilt, the Cats finally get to take a shot at washing away the sour taste that's stayed with them for too long.

"This is a great opportunity for us to go out and showcase what we have (done) over the break that we had, to make up for the mistakes that we had during the Florida game and to show that we fixed it," Bud Dupree said.

In Dupree's mind, UK's defense against the power run game is where the most unshakeable mistakes happened. The Cats allowed 237 rushing yards in the 36-30 loss, the majority coming on simple runs by the bruising Matt Jones, who piled up 156 yards and a touchdown.

With that in mind, Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) is a fitting next test for UK (2-1, 0-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. Under first-year head coach Derek Mason, the Commodores use the same big sets with multiple tight ends and extra offensive linemen that have been staples in Stanford's ascent among the college football elite in recent years.

"It used to be that spread offensives were unique and now it's kind of the other way," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we've got to make sure that we're playing sound."

As much of a throwback as the style may be, the Commodores are about much more than brute force.

"There's more to it than just lining up with an extra big body in there and an extra tight end and things like that," Mark Stoops said. "(People) think it's all just about power and things like that (but) they're creative in what they do, in creating extra gaps, and there's most definitely some very effective play-actions off that. That was evident this past week where they were able to get some good yardage out of some runs and also hit some play-actions off their big heavy sets."

The combination of power runs and play-actions helped Vanderbilt put together its best performance of the season in a 48-34 loss against South Carolina, rushing for better than five yards per carry and gaining 379 total yards. The Commodores built an early lead on the No. 14 Gamecocks and nearly pulled off the upset behind two kickoff return touchdowns by Darrius Sims.

"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."

On defense, Vanderbilt returns much of a front seven that allowed just 262 yards in a 22-6 win over Kentucky last season, though the Commodores have switched to a 3-4 system anchored by defensive tackle Adam Butler and linebacker Caleb Azubike.

"The thing that sticks out is they got a lot of returnees up front on defense --defensive line, linebackers," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They're new in the secondary, but those guys up front really gave us issues last year. They're big."

Vandy uses that size, first and foremost, to stymie the ground game. Brown, with his deep and talented backfield, refuses to concede that UK won't be able to run effectively, but he knows that's the Commodores' aim.

"That's their style of defense," Brown said. "Coach Stoops and Coach Eliot have gone to a very similar style and it's hard to run the football. They take away your edges. They do a really good job at Stanford playing against the run and they've done that well. If we have to throw the ball then we have to throw it."

With Patrick Towles at quarterback, throwing the ball hasn't been a major concern for Brown.

Towles is coming off an outing in which he threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns in his first road start. As he builds experience, he only figures to improve.

"He's giving us a chance, there's no question," Brown said. "He's done a good job. Can he be better? Absolutely. Can he do some things fundamentally better? Absolutely. Am I pleased with his progress through three games? Yes."

The same is true for UK's receiving corps. The group has combined for four touchdowns through three games, all of which have been scored by true freshmen.

"They're getting sharper on their routes and they're also getting smarter," Towles said. "That comes with experience. They've played three big-time college football games, so they've recognized what works and what doesn't work and they're starting to cut off some slough. It's really, really helping."

UK will rely heavily on those young wide receivers on Saturday as the Cats look to end a 17-game SEC losing streak that dates back to a win over Tennessee in the final game of 2011. Included in that streak is a pair of defeats to Vanderbilt, the first of which came two years ago by a final tally of 40-0.

The Cats don't deny those things are on their mind, but their primary focus is narrower than that.

"We just need a win," Towles said. "We've got that bad taste in our mouth from Gainesville and we're working every day so we do get that win. An SEC win is important. We haven't had one in a while. But that's going to come. We're just going to try to do everything we can to win this football game on Saturday."


UK reached the midpoint of its preparations for a Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt on Wednesday.

The Wildcats haven't played a game in more than a week with an open date over the weekend, but their energy isn't suffering because of it.

"We had a good practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around, communicating, playing fast. It was a good, physical full-padded practice, so we were pleased with the work ethic today."

UK is focusing more time than normal preparing for a physical Commodore ground attack, particularly considering the 237 yards the Cats allowed at Florida. Vanderbilt will put that work to the test with sets featuring as many as three tight ends and an extra offensive lineman.

"It used to be that spread offenses were unique and now it's kind of the other way," Eliot said. "You just don't see a lot of that stuff, so we gotta make sure that we're playing sound."

With only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, UK's scout team has had to adjust.

"We've just had to do it (to) the best of our ability with guys that maybe play running back, guys that maybe play big wide outs and the tight ends that we do have," Eliot said. "Try to simulate that pro-style offense."


The Kentucky football coaching staff made it clear after UK's three-overtime loss to Florida that the program would not accept moral victories.

With a bye week to regroup and refocus, the Wildcats hit the Tim Couch Practice Fields on Tuesday with good energy and excitement as they prepares for their Southeastern Conference home opener on Saturday against a improving 1-3 Vanderbilt team.

"Really good energy (at practice today)," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Our guys are excited about getting out there and playing, which I think is positive. They got the Florida game behind them and they're ready to go. Excited about the buzz that I think our fans have generated for this game. I know we've sold a lot more tickets for this Vandy game."

Brown had nothing but high praise for the Commodores, who are in their first season under head coach Derek Mason.

One thing not new for Vandy this season is its defensive front with two of its top three sack leaders returning in senior Kyle Woestmann and sophomore Stephen Weatherly, who both moved from the line to outside linebacker this season. Senior Vince Taylor was the team's starting tackle last season and has moved to nose tackle this season with 13 tackles with a quarterback sack and two fumble recoveries.

"Vanderbilt's much improved. I think they're getting better each week," Brown said. "We know, going through this last year, that anytime you have a new staff it takes you a little bit longer. The thing that sticks out is they got a lot of returnees up front on the defensive line and linebackers. They're new in the secondary, but those guys up front really gave us issues last year. They're big."

Just like any game, a key to UK's success offensively will be the decision-making of starting quarterback Patrick Towles. Brown said the staff has put a lot on Towles so far this season with the sophomore answering the bell each time.

Towles said he is concerned about improving and getting Kentucky better, not about what other teams are trying to do to slow the UK offense down.

"We are worried about us," Towles said. "We are going to execute what Coach Brown tells us to execute, run or pass ... Coach Brown tells us that our game plans are not these extravagant game plans, they are simple stuff that we are good at and can execute. With these young guys, they have been executing the game plans during practice and that has really helped out."

On the injury front, Brown said offensive lineman Zach West, who has missed the past two games with an injury, did practice some Tuesday but Brown did not say if he would play Saturday. Brown said wide receiver Javess Blue and running back Braylon Heard, who missed the Ohio game due to injury, are close to 100 percent and has liked what he has seen out of them the last few weeks.

Stoops wants Cats hungry for Vandy

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Facing Florida on the road, Kentucky embraced its role as the underdog.

Even though few predicted they would hang with the Gators, the Wildcats played well in the Swamp and came within one play of scoring the upset in a triple-overtime defeat.

Two weeks later, it will be UK that's expected to take care of business on its home field against Vanderbilt. In spite of the role reversal in the minds of the experts, Mark Stoops wants his team's attitude to stay the same.

"I don't pay much attention to it," Stoops said. "But certainly need to be a team that's very hungry. I think our team has played that way this year. We need to stay that way."

If last week is any indication, staying hungry won't be an issue.

With an open date over the weekend, UK (2-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) combined early preparations for Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 SEC) with plenty of fundamental work. On Monday, the Cats will return to the practice field ahead of Saturday's noon matchup on the SEC Network.

"We were very good all week," Stoops said. "We had a good, solid week, good energy. We talked about it last Monday, really all week, just to do more, prepare better, be more effective in what we're doing, get things cleaned up. So we'll see where we're at this week. They had the weekend off. I'll be anxious to get with them here this afternoon and start our preparation for a game week."

Vandy, playing its best game of the season over the weekend, gave UK plenty to prepare for. The Commodores built an early lead on No. 14 South Carolina before falling at home, 48-34.

"I thought they played with great energy this past week," Stoops said. "You could see the excitement. They played hard. They're getting better and better, playing more confident."

Vandy struggled out of the gate, dropping its first two games against Temple and Ole Miss in blowout fashion and falling behind 14-0 against UMass. The Commodores would come back to beat the Minutemen before going toe to toe with the Gamecocks behind true freshman Wade Freebeck.

Freebeck was slated to play on Saturday in a quarterback time share, but took over on a full-time basis when Patton Robinette suffered an injury. Freebeck is one of a nation-leading 31 freshmen who has played for Vandy so far this season.

"It will be interesting to see who goes for them," Stoops said. "I think you could see some real talent in the freshmen. A guy that we knew from St. Thomas High School (in Davie, Fla.), a very good football player, a great program. He's going to be a special player. Their older guys are good players, too. ... It doesn't matter, their offense doesn't change much."

Derek Mason is in his first season as head coach at Vanderbilt, but the offense the Commodores run is similar to the one Stanford used during his time as defensive coordinator at Stanford.

"It's a challenge," Stoops said. "I go back to my time at Arizona. Just the great respect I had for the Stanford program. Very fundamentally sound. Very tough at the core of who they are."

That toughness manifested itself in the running game on Saturday, as Vandy averaged better than five yards per carry.

"They do a lot of creative things with big sets," Stoops said. "That was helpful for them against South Carolina. You could see they're starting to build more and more into their package. They create some big problems from the run and pass with big sets."

Regardless how Vandy chooses to attack UK, Stoops believes his team will be prepared.

"It's the next game on the schedule, so it's the most important one," Stoops said. "We'll be excited to play."

UK 'close to 100 percent' after bye

Few teams reach week five of the season close to full strength, but UK is close thanks to an early bye week.

Running back Braylon Heard and wide receiver Javess Blue played through ankle injuries at Florida, but both are expected to be healthy for Vandy. Zach West, nursing a neck injury, is expected to practice on Monday. He joins wide receiver Jeff Badet as "question marks" for Saturday, while wide out Alex Montgomery is "close" as he builds muscle strength in his recovery from knee surgery.

UK football depth chart -- Vandy week

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Offense

Tight end
85 Steven Borden, 6-3, 246, Sr-1L
80 Ronnie Shields, 6-5, 254, Sr-3L

Left tackle

77 Darrian Miller, 6-5, 292, Sr-3L
68 Nick Haynes, 6-5, 319, Fr-RS

Left guard
74 Cole Mosier, 6-6, 348, Fr-RS
75 Zach West, 6-4, 318, Jr-2L

Center
72 Jon Toth, 6-5, 301, So-1L
57 Zach Myers, 6-3, 287, So-Sq

Right guard
69 Ramsey Meyers, 6-5, 300, Fr-RS
64 Max Godby, 6-4, 298, Sr-1L

Right tackle
70 Jordan Swindle, 6-7, 306, Jr-2L
73 Kyle Meadows, 6-5, 294, Fr-RS

Wide receiver
9 Demarco Robinson, 5-10, 158, Sr-3L
6 Blake Bone, 6-5, 198, Fr-HS

Wide receiver
1 Ryan Timmons, 5-10, 195, So-1L
82 T.V. Williams, 5-10, 160, Fr-HS

Wide receiver
8 Javess Blue, 6-0, 191, Sr-1L or 2 Dorian Baker, 6-3, 197, Fr-HS
81 Rashad Cunningham, 6-4, 225, Jr-1L

Wide receiver
87 Joey Herrick, 6-1, 197, Jr-1L
19 Garrett Johnson, 5-11, 176, Fr-HS

Quarterback
14 Patrick Towles, 6-5, 238, So-1L
12 Reese Phillips, 6-2, 218, Fr-RS or 7 Drew Barker, 6-3, 216, Fr-HS

Fullback

39 D.J. Warren, 6-0, 251, Sr-3L
10 Jeff Witthuhn, 6-3, 246, So-Sq

Running back
5 Braylon Heard, 5-11, 189, Jr-Tr or 3 Jojo Kemp, 5-10, 194, So-1L

Special teams

Long snapper
59 Kelly Mason, 6-3, 223, Jr-2L

Holder
13 Jared Leet, 6-3, 196, Jr-2L

Kicker
99 Austin MacGinnis, 5-10, 168, Fr-RS

Punter
9 Landon Foster, 6-1, 198, Jr-2L

Kickoff returner

18 Stanley "Boom" Williams, 5-9, 200, Fr-HS
5 Braylon Heard, 5-11, 189, Jr-Tr or 11 J.D. Harmon, 6-2, 201, So-1L

Punt returner
9 Demarco Robinson, 5-10, 158, Sr-3L
1 Ryan Timmons, 5-10, 195, So-1L

Defense

Defensive end
94 Za'Darius Smith, 6-6, 263, Sr-1L
91 Farrington Huguenin, 6-4, 275, Jr-2L

Defensive tackle
90 Melvin Lewis, 6-4, 320, Jr-JC
69 Matt Elam, 6-7, 375, Fr-HS

Defensive tackle

50 Mike Douglas, 6-4, 288, Sr-3L
67 Cory "C.J." Johnson, 6-3, 299, Jr-JC or 96 Regie Meant, 6-4, 286, Fr-RS

Defensive end/Linebacker
6 Jason Hatcher, 6-3, 242, So-1L
47 Jabari Johnson, 6-1, 276, Jr-1L

Defensive end/Linebacker
2 Alvin "Bud" Dupree, 6-4, 264, Sr-3L
41 TraVaughn Paschal, 6-4, 257, Sr-2L

Middle linebacker
45 Josh Forrest, 6-3, 236, Jr-2L
41 TraVaughn Paschal, 6-4, 257, Sr-2L

Weak-side linebacker
22 Khalid Henderson, 6-1, 228, Jr-2L
33 Ryan Flannigan, 6-2, 225, Jr-JC

Nickelback
24 Blake McClain, 5-11, 194, So-1L
29 Kendall Randolph, 6-0, 168, Fr-HS

Cornerback
3 Fred Tiller, 6-0, 170, Jr-2L
11 J.D. Harmon, 6-2, 201, So-1L

Safety
5 Ashely Lowery, 6-1, 220, Sr-3L
15 Marcus McWilson, 6-0, 210, So-1L

Safety
1 A.J. Stamps, 6-0, 199, Jr-JC
28 Eric Dixon, 5-11, 193, Sr-3L

Cornerback
16 Cody Quinn, 5-10, 172, Jr-2L
21 Nate Willis, 6-0, 168, Sr-1L

UK's focus internal during bye week

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With an open date coming on Saturday, Kentucky has no immediate opponent to prepare for.

Instead, the Wildcats are working to improve.

"We had a good practice," D.J. Eliot said on Wednesday. "Harping on fundamentals. Everybody's getting reps and a lot of the younger players got reps all this week and we're just focusing on us, focusing on us getting better and harping on the little things."

For Eliot's defense, that starts against the run.

UK allowed 237 rushing yards - 156 by big back Matt Jones - in a triple-overtime loss to Florida on Saturday. The Gators gained 4.7 yards per carry, often relying on a straightforward game the Cats know they have to be able to stop.

"For us, it was defending the power run game and how quick we read it, how quick we triggered and how physical we were at the point of attack," Eliot said.

If it wasn't Jones doing the damage for Florida, it was typically wide receiver Demarcus Robinson making UK pay in the passing game. He piled up 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant performance, but Eliot saw plenty the Cats could have done about it on film.

"The longest pass he caught went off our cornerback's shoulder pads," Eliot said. "So it was a lot of stuff that we could have prevented, you know what I mean? It was really a lot of stuff that we could prevent. Give him credit. He's an excellent player and they executed some good plays, but what we need to improve on is our assignments and our technique in coverage."

Though there was room for improvement, it's not as if there weren't positives. Florida managed only 20 points before overtime against a UK defense that still hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown.

"Ultimately on defense, you gotta keep them out of the end zone," Eliot said. "You can give up yards and you can not play perfect, but you gotta keep them out of the end zone. And so we've been able to do that this season and in that game during regulation."

Perhaps the best example was on Florida's first drive of the fourth quarter.

Following a Patrick Towles interception, the Gators got the ball on their own 15. They methodically moved the ball downfield, eventually having a first and 10 at the UK 25 and seeming poised to score what would have been a back-breaking touchdown to build on a 20-17 lead.

Instead, the Cats stopped Jones for two three-yard gains and forced a Jeff Driskel incompletion and a field-goal attempt. The Gators would miss and UK would force overtime.

"To do that, you've gotta be good in situations and situations are third-down defense, the red-zone defense, the two-minute defense and those are the things that you have to be successful at - their turnovers - the things you have to be successful at to play good defense and to play good scoring defense," Eliot said.

UK student-athletes, coaches 'Kickin It 4 Kelly'

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UK fan Kelly Melton isn't shy about wanting to "kick cancer in the butt" and several current and former UK student-athletes and coaches are helping him do just that.

Former Kentucky basketball star Nerlens Noel and current football kicker Max Strong have teamed up with others to start a "Kickin it 4 Kelly" Cancer Fund. The goal is to raise $100,000 for Kelly and the Melton family as the youngster battles Leukemia.

Kelly and Strong got creative to find ways for UK players and coaches to help raise money, starting a whip cream challenge. Kelly challenged several UK student-athletes and coaches, including UK football head coach Mark Stoops.

Stoops, along with several members of the UK football team accepted the challenge after Tuesday's football practice, which can be seen at the video below.

To donate to help the Melton family, visit https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/b5s5/kickinit4kelly.

UK taking right approach into bye week

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Mark Stoops made it clear after Saturday's loss at Florida that he wasn't satisfied.

He was proud of his team's effort in the triple-overtime defeat, sure, but he knew there was work ahead.

Three days later, the Wildcats are taking the same approach.

"Attitude's good," Stoops said. "I thought the players really took it to heart, really looked at the film, were very critical of themselves and looked at all areas where we all can improve."

During practice on Tuesday -- the second of this bye week -- the Cats spent time on fundamentals, correcting mistakes from the Florida game and getting a head start on preparation for Vanderbilt. Though the Cats have been appropriately hard on themselves, they're also carrying confidence built on Saturday.

"I think each step, each time you get closer and closer, they believe more and more," Stoops said. "And I think most of them listen to you on Monday and I talked about that going into the game: Let's not come in here and say, 'Boy, that was close. Good effort.' Because we're not satisfied with that. I think each time you get closer and closer you put yourself in positions like that and we keep on working and fundamentally getting better, the next time we get that opportunity we'll win."

Because of the bye week, that next opportunity won't come for another seven days. Stoops would rather not wait for Sept. 27.

"If it was up to me, I think I'd love to go play," Stoops said. "Guys are in good spirits. We have a lot left in our tank. We got a lot more we can do, a lot better things and we're excited to go to work. I wish we were playing, but we'll deal with it the way it is."

On a positive note, the Cats will have an opportunity to recover from nagging injuries. Braylon Heard and Javess Blue, for example, played at less than full speed at Florida with ankle injuries, but they should be back for Vandy and Stoops said UK will be "close to a hundred percent" as a team.

The bye week also affords an opportunity for players the coaching staff is planning to redshirt to see more time in practice.

"Got some of our younger guys a lot of work that are potential redshirts," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Drew (Barker) got a bunch of work today. Thaddeus Snodgrass got a bunch of work. T.V. (Williams), who didn't play as much in the last game, got him a lot of work."

All that's important, but the priority is to get ready for the next test.

"You get guys healthy and stuff, but it's essential we treat this week as a week to definitely improve fundamentally," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "Vanderbilt's a good team. They went down to Florida last year and beat the crap out of them, so they're tough. Same front seven last year who gave us a hard time last year are back. We can't afford to take anybody lightly, so we're excited about getting prepared for Vandy like we did today and we'll be ready to next Saturday."



Recent Comments

  • Tom: No highlight video from Florida game? I was looking forward to watching some of the big plays again sync'd with read more
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