SEC: Josh Forrest

Four key storylines in LSU-Kentucky

October, 17, 2014
10/17/14
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Upstart Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC) gets another chance on Saturday to prove that its fast start is legitimate. The Wildcats will visit LSU (5-2, 1-2), which notched its first SEC win in last weekend’s 30-27 thriller against Florida.

One of these teams will be bowl eligible by the end of Saturday night, while the other will start looking over a tough second-half schedule and hoping another win is on there somewhere.

Let’s take a look at four key factors in Saturday’s game:

Contributions from newcomers: A unique attribute that both of these teams share is how heavily their offenses rely on players who are filling new roles.

True freshman have accounted for 22 of LSU’s 31 touchdowns, and they have actually scored 16 of those touchdowns. Freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who rushed for 140 yards and scored twice against Florida, has six touchdowns. Receiver Malachi Dupre has four, and running back Darrel Williams three. Quarterback Brandon Harris has passed for six touchdowns and run for three.

After he rushed 27 times against Florida, one of only nine backs ever to run more than 25 times in a game under LSU coach Les Miles, keep an eye on whether the Tigers use Fournette as the feature back again. Previously they had distributed carries among Fournette, Williams and seniors Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee.

The Tigers have already played 17 true freshmen this season, which is the most for any LSU freshman class under Miles.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is also getting a majority of its production from players who didn’t play for the Wildcats in 2013. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (38-282, 3 TDs) and freshman Stanley Williams (23-202, 2 TDs) help Kentucky newcomers account for 73 percent of the team’s rushing yards. Players who didn’t play for Kentucky last season have also accounted for 67 percent of its points (147 of 171).

Williams, who also leads the SEC with an average of 36 yards per kickoff return, had a big game last Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. He ran seven times for 104 yards and a touchdown and also returned the opening kickoff 75 yards.

Rare air for Kentucky: In Mark Stoops’ second season, the Wildcats are vastly improved from their back-to-back two-win seasons of 2012 and 2013. In fact, they would be undefeated today if their upset bid at Florida hadn’t fallen just short in a 36-30 triple-overtime loss.

They haven’t been on the road since that painful loss in The Swamp, so posting a win Saturday at Tiger Stadium would be an even greater milestone for Stoops than Kentucky’s thrilling 45-38 win over South Carolina two weeks ago.

It would also secure Kentucky’s first four-game winning streak since 2008, its first three-game SEC winning streak since 2006 and its first 3-1 start in SEC play since 1999.

If the Wildcats are 6-1 by the end of Saturday night, it would be only the fourth time since 1950 that Kentucky had won six or more games in the first seven games of the season.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette got a career-high 27 carries against Florida and turned them into 140 yards.and two TDs.
Turnover battle: Finishing on the positive side in turnover margin is often a way to earn a victory, and these teams have done that consistently. LSU and Kentucky are both plus-eight in turnover margin, which ties for second in the SEC.

A remarkable turnaround by Kentucky’s secondary is the driving force in its success generating turnovers. Of Kentucky’s 16 takeaways, 11 have come on interceptions -- a total that is fourth nationally and second on the SEC behind Ole Miss’ 12. Kentucky had just three interceptions in the entire 2013 season.

Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps is the Wildcats’ leader in pass coverage, notching three interceptions and six passes defended.

Safety Marcus McWilson and linebacker Josh Forrest both returned interceptions for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, marking the first time since 1986 that the Wildcats had two pick-sixes in a game.

LSU has been more balanced in turnovers, both in its takeaways and giveaways. The defense has generated 16 turnovers (eight fumbles and eight interceptions) and the offense has committed eight turnovers (four fumbles and four interceptions).

Linebacker Kwon Alexander is one of the Tigers to watch on the turnover front. He forced a fumble that Danielle Hunter recovered and returned for a touchdown against Mississippi State and then forced a Jeff Driskel fumble last week in Florida territory that led to a short touchdown drive.

Safety Rickey Jefferson made a key late interception against the Gators to set up Colby Delahoussaye’s game-winning field goal. Jefferson and cornerback Tre'Davious White are tied for the team lead with two interceptions apiece.

Pounding the run: If Kentucky is to win on Saturday, its success in the running game will almost certainly be a deciding factor.

The Wildcats have one of the SEC’s most balanced offenses, but LSU has been much more vulnerable against the run than the pass. The Tigers are 12th in the SEC against the run (175.6 yards per game), but boast the conference’s top pass defense (157.7).

Don’t be surprised to see the Wildcats feed Williams and Heard, have Jojo Kemp take direct snaps and even run a bit with quarterback Patrick Towles in an effort to duplicate previous teams’ successes running against LSU.

The Wildcats also must do a better job on the ground against the run-heavy Tigers. South Carolina ran for 282 yards against Kentucky two weeks ago, led by 183 yards and three touchdowns from Mike Davis. LSU runs the ball more than any SEC team; its 332 rushing attempts are 43 more than the next-closest team. So the Wildcats know that slowing down Fournette and Co. is their No. 1 task.

Kentucky is eighth in the SEC in run defense at 152.0 ypg. LSU is sixth in the league in rushing offense (209.1), but had one of its best outings of the season against Florida. Although the Gators have one of the toughest defensive fronts in the league, LSU ran 50 times for 195 yards.
Schedule: The Wildcats' first practice is on Saturday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 8. They open the season at Louisville on Sept. 2 and the game will be televised on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Returning starters: Four on offense, five on defense and the place-kicker on special teams.

Star power: Wide receiver La'Rod King didn't get a ton of publicity last year, but he was easily Kentucky's most consistent offensive weapon in 2011. He was 11th in the SEC with 598 yards on 40 catches. He also had seven touchdowns.

New faces: Quarterback Patrick Towles was the biggest get of the 2012 class for Kentucky. He was a Parade All-American and has a chance to push both Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton for time this fall. He might possess the most skill at the quarterback position. The Wildcats also welcome in five freshmen offensive linemen. Kentucky has to replace three starters from last year and is in need of depth up front. Also, keep an eye on running back Justin Taylor, who was originally committed to Alabama.

Don’t forget about: Kentucky's staff has been waiting for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to step up in the middle of that line. Last year, they combined for 64 tackles, but just six tackles for loss, including two sacks. But the staff feels much more confident in the two big guys up front, after both had very good springs this year. Joker Phillips said this summer that he thinks Cobble could be poised for a big year and should be even better at stopping the run.

Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Danny Trevathan wasn't just a leader, he was the heart and soul of Kentucky's team. He led the league in tackles the past two years and was easily the team's best player last year, regardless of position, and it will take a lot to replace what he did on and off the field. So far, the Wildcats' staff is still searching for the right player to take over his spot at weakside linebacker. Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer battled there this spring, but neither did enough to earn a lot of confidence from their coaches. Kentucky might have to look at a true freshman here as well.

Key battles: The Wildcats are replacing two starting cornerbacks and four linebackers. Avery Wilson returns with the most experience at linebacker and sophomore Alvin Dupree seems to have wrapped up hybrid linebacker/defensive end, but everything else is up for grabs. McDuffen and Rancifer will continue to battle for the weakside spot, along with incoming freshman Khalid Henderson. Miles Simpson, Josh Forrest and junior college transfer Kory Brown will compete for the hybrid linebacker/safety spot. With Marcus Caffey being ruled ineligible, the staff will now look to Eric Simmons and Eric Dixon to help out Cartier Rice.

Rising star: King needs help at the receiver position, and the staff thinks it might have found some in redshirt freshman Demarco Robinson. He had a tremendous spring and hauled in nine catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. He's versatile enough to line up all over the field and could be a solid deep threat in the Wildcats' offense.

Bottom line: This is a crucial year for Phillips. After Kentucky made a bowl game for five straight years, the Wildcats fell a win short in 2011, causing Phillips' seat to get a little warmer. The one saving grace was the fact that Kentucky ended a 20-plus-year losing streak to rival Tennessee. But Kentucky has to show progress this fall or Phillips' job security could come into question. The offense was the SEC's worst last season, but the staff feels it has more playmakers and should be more explosive this time. The defense has a lot of key players to replace and could go through some growing pains with all that youth. If Kentucky wants to get back to a bowl, it has to start the season 3-0. That means beating Louisville in the season opener.

One good thing: Kentucky

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
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We continue our "One good thing" series looking at the Kentucky Wildcats.

Good reasons:
Let's see what the Wildcats can do in 2012:

Kentucky will make a bowl game: Joker Phillips is more confident in the offense.

Last year, finding consistent, reliable playmakers in Kentucky's offense was almost nonexistent. Wide receiver La'Rod King was the most reliable offensive weapon for the Wildcats last year, hauling in 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns. There were some bright spots in the running game here and there, but Josh Clemons' season-ending knee injury early in the year was a major blow. But this spring Phillips found more players to rely on offensively. For starters, quarterback Maxwell Smith impressed the coaching staff with a solid spring. Clearly, the starting quarterback job is his to lose. The Wildcats also got solid production out of wide receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins this spring. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson stepped up as well, giving Smith plenty more options than he had last year. Having more reliable options at receiver will take pressure off of King and will help Smith develop more. It should also help a running game that expects to get Clemons back and will still have CoShik Williams, who led the Cats in rushing last year, and Raymond Sanders.

The offensive line is still a work in progress, but Phillips said at SEC media days he felt much better about the line coming out of spring than he did going in. The Wildcats were the SEC's worst offense last year because of its lack of playmakers, but if these pieces fall into place like the coaches hope, the Wildcats' offense should be much improved and could be what Kentucky needs to get back to the six-win mark.

Why it won't: There are too many holes on defense.

While the Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the SEC in most defensive categories last season, there were some solid starters that will be tough to replace. Gone is Danny Trevathan, who was the SEC's leading tackler and one of the league's top linebackers. He wasn't just Kentucky's best overall player but he was the team's unquestioned leader. The Wildcats have to replace not just his production on the field but his guidance in the locker room. Hybrid linebacker/safety Winston Guy, who was third in the SEC in tackles last year, is also gone. Overall, the Wildcats are replacing six defensive starters -- four linebackers and two cornerbacks.

Replacing Trevathan might be the toughest job, as youngsters Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer struggled to man the weakside linebacker spot this spring. Sophomore Miles Simpson left spring as the projected starter at Guy's hybrid position, but will be pushed for playing time by redshirt freshman Josh Forrest. The coaches feel pretty good about Marcus Caffey's move from running back to cornerback, but he has no collegiate experience on defense, and he might be the Wildcats' top corner on the roster.

If Kentucky's defense can't fill those holes, this unit won't make the necessary strides it needs to improve upon last year and it certainly won't go bowling.

Opening spring camp: Kentucky

March, 21, 2012
3/21/12
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Schedule: Kentucky opened its spring practice Wednesday morning and will conclude with the Blue/White Game on April 21. All practices are closed to the public.

What's new: Kentucky welcomed two new assistants to Joker Phillips' coaching staff during the offseason. Mike Cassity returned to his alma mater this year and will coach the Wildcats' defensive backs. Cassity coached Kentucky's defensive backs from 1980-81. Pat Washington also joined Kentucky's staff to coach wide receivers and to be the passing game coordinator after Tee Martin left to coach wide receivers at USC.

On the mend: Quarterback Morgan Newton will only do some light tossing and handoffs as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Defensive end Collins Ukwu will miss drills after undergoing labrum surgery. Running back Josh Clemons will be non-contact throughout the spring because he's rehabbing from the torn meniscus he suffered last season. Defensive tackle Tristian Johnson will be limited this spring because of a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Gene McCaskill is being evaluated day-to-day because of knee issues that he's dealt with the last couple of years. Offensive lineman Tyler Davenport won't go through contact either this spring because of a knee injury and center Sam Simpson is out indefinitely with a back injury. Linebacker Jabari Johnson won't go through contact either because of shoulder surgery.

On the move: Marcus Caffey is making a significant move for the Wildcats as he switches from running back to cornerback, which is a position that needs all the bodies it can get this year. Eric Dixon is also moving from safety to cornerback to help the Wildcats with numbers. Bookie Cobbins is moving from quarterback to wide receiver.

Questions: The Wildcats enter spring with a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. Kentucky must replace three starting offensive linemen from last season. The good news is that vets Larry Warford and Matt Smith are back, but Kentucky will work rising sophomores Darrian Miller (left tackle) and Zach West (left guard), and junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell (right tackle) with the first-team offense. Miller started two games last year and the coaches are high on him, but there won't be a lot of experience behind Warford and Smith. Kentucky is also looking for another wide receiver to step up opposite La'Rod King, who proved to be the Wildcats' best receiving option in 2011. Outside of King, Kentucky returns just one receiver -- E.J. Fields -- who registered 10 more receptions in 2011. Kentucky will likely have to look to its youngsters and is hoping for a couple of redshirt freshmen to stand out, like Cobbins, Daryl Collins and Rashad Cunningham. Kentucky is also replacing two starting corners and safeties (Winston Guy was a Spur) and three linebackers after Ridge Wilson was dismissed before spring. Converted corners Caffey and Dixon will come in handy at corner because Kentucky needs the most help there.

Don't forget about: Kentucky's offense was dead last in the SEC last season, but the Wildcats had some success at times running the ball. Kentucky's offense took a major hit when Clemons went down with that devastating knee injury last fall. The coaches expected big things from him and when he's healthy he's arguably the Wildcats' best offensive weapon. But Kentucky also returns rising senior CoShik Williams. He's added 10 pounds of muscle and could help Kentucky develop a solid rushing tandem once Clemons is healthy again. Raymond Sanders is another running back to keep an eye on. Injuries wrecked his 2011 season, but if he's healthy he'll help Kentucky's offense as it looks for more consistency.

Waiting in the wings: Quarterback Maxwell Smith won't have to fight off Newton this spring, as Newton recovers from shoulder surgery, but he'll get an up-close glimpse of his summer competition when 2012 signee Patrick Towles visits Lexington during his Spring Break. Towles will be on hand to take in as much of the Wildcats' offense as he can. Towles will arrive this summer with a lot of hype following him from high school and might already be the most athletic of the bunch at quarterback.

Breaking out: Kentucky is once again searching for playmakers this spring and it hopes to find a few at wide receiver. Cobbins, Collins and Cunningham are all players the coaches are excited about working with in the next month and with receiver so wide open, each will have the opportunity for a big spring. Kentucky also needs players to step up at linebacker, cornerback and the Spur position. All the starters from those positions are gone, including Kentucky's best player in linebacker Danny Trevathan. Attempting to replace Trevathan at the Will spot is rising sophomore Malcolm McDuffen. Underclassmen Tim Patterson and Demarius Rancifer are also players the coaches are excited about using at linebacker. Josh Forrest and Miles Simpson are also battling at the Spur.

All eyes on: Smith ended up being the best option Kentucky had at quarterback last season, despite some rocky play, but an injury kept him out of the season finale against Tennessee. It worked out that wide receiver Matt Roark managed well enough to guide the Wildcats to their first win over the Vols in 26 years. Smith now enters the spring with questions surrounding his game and the pressure of having to hold off Newton and Towles this summer. Coaches and players have more confidence in Smith now, but he'll have to continue to develop as more of a passer and generate more confidence in has abilities this spring. He'll have to start making those around him better, especially the wide receivers, who enter spring as a very unproven group. Smith could either run away with the starting job this spring or make the competition that much more fierce once the others start throwing with him this summer.

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