LEXINGTON, Ky. – After its hard-fought battle with top-15 ranked Georgia last Saturday, the University of Kentucky football team hit the Tim Couch Practice Field on Tuesday morning to prepare for a Southeastern Conference road contest against Missouri.
The Wildcats practiced for two hours Tuesday in picture-perfect weather conditions in Lexington. Kentucky will practice again Wednesday and Thursday before flying to Columbia, Mo., Friday afternoon.
After practice Tuesday, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and defensive coordinator Rick Minter talked about the team’s first practice of the week. Both coordinators seemed pleased with their side’s performance against Georgia, but acknowledged UK still has work to do and a lot to play for the rest of the season.
One of the main areas of buzz this week has been around the return of true freshman quarterback Patrick Towles to practice after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. Sanders said Towles practiced Tuesday, but was “rusty” as expected, given Towles has only seen one week of practice not with the scout team.
“It's really his fourth day of work working with the varsity,” Sanders said about Towles. “We forget he got hurt against Mississippi State but that was really his first week of not running off cards on scout team. It was good to have him back out there and good to have him in the huddle making the calls. I like the way he handled the things at the line of scrimmage and all that, but it was pretty obvious he's rusty and needs work.”
Sanders said Towles had tape, an air cast and high top cleats on the ankle to keep it stable. The UK offensive coordinator said the biggest hurdle for Towles moving forward, except for the ankle, will be his ability to understand seeing things on paper in team meetings is different from executing on the field.
“I think he understands a little bit more but again understanding it on paper or in the meeting room or on film is still different than executing it on the field,” Sanders said. “I do think he has put in a lot of effort into staying into it mentally while he's been hurt. I've tried to coach him just as hard while he's been hurt than while he was on the field. I do think he's farther along but still executing it on the field with the fast pace, we've got to work on that.”
One of the biggest positives from Kentucky’s game against Georgia last week was the Wildcats’ ability to run the football. UK posted a season-high 206 rushing yards in the game on top of two rushing touchdowns. Junior Jonathan George led the way with a career-best 87 yards. Sanders said being able to establish a running game early helped give UK confidence.
“We were able to run it early which I think gave our guys confidence,” Sanders said. “We took a couple of shots at some play action that didn't necessarily hit but the defense saw we had them and then the score allowed us to stay with the running game more. If a team (opponent) gets 14 or 21 ahead it makes it much easier for them to play defense and much harder to play offense. The fact we were able to keep the game close and be in contention the whole way made the running game that much better.”
Sanders and Co. will face another solid defense this weekend in Missouri. The Tigers rank 41st nationally in total defense, 43rd in passing defense, 50th in rushing defense and fourth in tackles for los,s averaging 8.43 tackles for loss a game.
“They have a good front,” Sanders said about the Tiger defense. “They've got a lot of experience on defense, their linebackers, just reading their bios, seem like they've been there since the turn of the century almost. They've been there a long time and seen a lot of football and are good players. They've got (a) D-tackle (Sheldon Richardson, the team’s leading tackler) who is very, very good. It's going to be a huge challenge to run the ball and we’ll have to execute in the passing game.”
Switching gears to the defensive side of the ball, Minter’s rush defense showed great improvement last week against Georgia, limiting the Bulldogs to 77 yards, the fewest the Cats have allowed all year. Minter said the team can use that performance as confidence although there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"Well, we went down and played them well last year. Some teams you match up with,” Minter said. “Be it style, scheme, players, demeanor, we match up with Georgia. Mark (Richt) has done a great job recruiting good players but we just match up with what they try to do and how they try to do it. Two years in a row now we've played the running game really well and outside of giving up a couple of plays that we'd love to have back, we played pretty good. And yet we have to continuously get better at the things that we're failing. We got better in the run game and better on third down, it's just inexcusable the mistakes we made in the passing game.”
One area that Minter has talked about a lot recently to help improve UK’s pass defense is increasing its pass rush. The Wildcats were able to cause some havoc in the UGA backfield last week with three sacks and five tackles for loss.
"It's OK, nothing great,” Minter said about the pass rush. “Some of it is style, some of it is attempt. In other words, the ones that we sacked, Donte Rumph and those guys came off the ball one-on-one, beat their guys and got them. We didn't have to shake and bake it, didn't have any real (blitz) pressure in those situations but those were just individual great efforts and when that happens, you get four-man rushes and we played better coverage. When you start rushing five, six or seven, you start robbing Peter to pay Paul. But we don't have anywhere close to the sack total we'd like to have in our scheme, we just have to keep working."