After spending the off-season visiting other coaches to pick up the nuances of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, the Kentucky staff has been forced to step back and make major adjustments due to the Wildcats’ health misfortune at the quarterback position.
Kentucky (1-6, 0-4 SEC) has used four players at quarterback this season due to ankle injuries to original starter Maxwell Smith and third-stringer Patrick Towles. That has left freshman Jalen Whitlow, who is completing only 42 percent of his passes, and equally ineffective senior Morgan Newton as the Cats’ only options as they attempt to compete against the rugged SEC schedule.
“Things are certainly different,” Sanders said after Tuesday’s practice at the Nutter Center. “We went through spring practice and went through fall camp, and we didn’t have a really, really big package, but we tried to really good at what we were doing.
“I felt we had gotten good at what we were doing at quarterback, offensive line and receiver. Suddenly, we had the injuries and (had to) try to reinvent ourselves a little bit to what our quarterback can do and what the other guys can do. Unfortunately, we have been playing some really good teams that haven’t made it easy.”
Never was that more harshly illustrated than in Saturday’s 49-7 loss at Arkansas in a game that was called due to dangerous weather conditions midway through the third quarter. The Cats went three-and-out with a punt on six of nine possessions and managed to cross midfield only twice against the Razorbacks, who entered the game with a defense ranked among the nation’s worst.
Asked if he could put a finger on the issues his unit has faced in recent games, Sanders said it was difficult to pinpoint due to the different styles of defense that UK has faced.
“It was interesting because Arkansas started out in the first series and they blitzed us a few times,” Sanders said. “We hit the screen (to Jonathan George) and if we would have hit the second screen on first down there was only one guy left. After that, there was almost no blitz. They did bring guys up, but they didn’t really blitz – they lined up and tried to take away the run game and make us execute in the passing game.
“It was almost completely different than what Mississippi State did (in a 27-14 win over UK the previous week). Mississippi State just stayed back and dared us to run the ball, and we weren’t able to run the ball really efficiently against them. Had we been able to execute a little better in the passing game, I think we could have run the ball. Last week, they just loaded the box and dared us to execute in the passing game and we had trouble with it.”
Next up for the struggling Cats is No. 13 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC) on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The Bulldogs are known more for their explosive offense, but still have enough high-level athletes on the defensive side of the ball to give UK problems.
Sanders said he wasn’t sure which approach Georgia will take. The Bulldogs have brought strong pressure in some games, backed off in others. At times, they've done a little bit of both in the same game.
“It will be interesting to see what their philosophy is,” he said.
With UK completing only four of 15 passes in the loss to Arkansas, Sanders said the Cats must run the ball better to give themselves a chance to complete.
Kentucky managed only 66 net rushing yards on 25 carries against the Razorbacks, their second-lowest output of the season. The Cats have been held to under 100 net rushing yards in four of their seven games this season.
“I like what our offensive line has done, and I like the way our running backs have run, but we are not talented enough to just say we are going to run the ball 60 times – here we come – and get it done against good defenses,” Sanders said. “We have to maintain some balance and do enough in the passing game to keep teams honest and that is what we haven’t done the last couple of weeks.”
It’s not all doom and gloom on that side of the ball, however. Sanders said one thing the Cats are doing well is taking care of the ball. That gives him optimism moving forward.
“One of the biggest sources of optimism is that we haven’t turned the ball over, so we are doing that part well,” he said. “Up until last week we have had few offensive penalties. We had a couple of procedure penalties last week that hurt us, but we haven’t had too much of them.
“Young guys usually get better with reps in practice reps or game reps. We do have young guys that are getting a lot of reps and hopefully we are making improvement, and obviously we have to make improvements. You look to those things as optimism.”