Kentucky defense struggles in first 3 games
Fittingly, Kentucky offers little defense for its lack of it.
The Wildcats (1-2) enter their Southeastern Conference opener Saturday at No. 14 Florida allowing nearly 400 yards per game. That doesn't bode well for Kentucky against a Gators' offense averaging almost 410 yards a contest.
Kentucky's challenge will be stopping Florida's run game, now the Gators' first option after a golden era of passing.
Replacing six starters with young personnel explains some of the Wildcats' problems, but the biggest might be their failure to grasp a basic defensive requirement: tackling.
Kentucky defenders often use shoulders when arms are required or fail to fully wrap up ball carriers.
''We're not a good tackling team right now,'' coach Joker Phillips said. ''A lot of that has to do with youth, but even some of our older guys aren't good tackling guys. We've got to continue to stress it, and a lot of it is staying up off the ground. Running your feet and all those fundamentals of tackling, wrapping up. ... A lot of times when you miss tackles, you're out of balance, your feet are behind you, your head's down, those type of things.
''Those are the types of things we got to try to stress now because it's hard to go at full speed tackling drills. We have a three- or four-minute period that we do a 3-on-3 drill, but after that it's not much tackling.''
The results have been more `aw-man' defensive moments than the Wildcats can count, highlighted by 47-yard touchdown romps by Louisville and Kent State. Kentucky is giving up 188 yards rushing a game, that ranks 92nd nationally.
It all adds up to a problem against Florida (3-0, 2-0 SEC). The Gators are averaging 232.7 rushing yards per game and 5.2 per carry.
Florida rushed for 336 in last week's 37-23 win at Tennessee, a game in which Trey Burton rip off TD runs of 14 and 80 yards out of the Wildcat formation. Junior Mike Gillislee has been Florida's main threat, rushing 56 times for an SEC-best 346 yards.
Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter said those numbers symbolize Florida's diversity under offensive coordinator Rick Pease, who coached at Kentucky from 2001-02. While the Gators still like to throw to a corps of speedy athletic receivers, they're realizing the benefits of running the ball more than in recent years, he said.
''They have a lot of ways to attack you in the rushing game,'' Minter said.
From the view of linebacker Avery Williamson, Kentucky's leading tackler with 33, the Wildcats have just been out of place on many plays and recovery attempts have failed. It was evident on the season's first defensive series against Louisville, when Kentucky allowed a 98-yard touchdown drives and two more of 85 and 93 yards.
Of the 466 yards allowed to the Cardinals in a 32-14 loss, 219 came on the ground. Kentucky sees progress in decreasing totals against Kent State (409 total yards, 182 rush) and Western Kentucky (323, 163), but knows per-play allowances of 5.3 yards won't get it done in the SEC.
''We've got to keep building on that and find the motivation to keep on fighting,'' said Williamson, who had a career-best 14 tackles and an interception against WKU. ''I believe we really can stop the run. We've had a good two days of practice and I feel like we've got good chance, but we've got to stop it from the very beginning. We've got to know what to do and where to fit.''
Minter isn't planning anything special for Florida, emphasizing that his outfit simply has to be better at such fundamentals as holding positions, filling gaps and tackling. He noted a bright spot against Western Kentucky, which averaged just 3.2 yards on 51 attempts.
Florida, though, is a bigger and faster. Kentucky needs everybody where they're supposed to keep the game within reach.
''Some of it is tackling, getting off blocks, doing what you're supposed to do on certain assignments, doing your job every play,'' defensive tackle Donte Rumph said. ''We just have to create opportunities, make plays.''