Better/Worse in 2016: Kentucky special teams
A quick look at the stats from Kentucky’s 5-7 season in 2015 would suggest that the offense and the defense need to play a bit better to secure a bowl bid this fall.
A little more consistency in special teams would help, too.
Some success in place kicking and kickoff returns were offset by a poor punting average and issues in kick coverage. Special teams coordinator Matt House, who joined the staff after Andy Buh left for Maryland in the middle of spring practice, will try to even out the special teams numbers in 2016.
It may not be as obvious as the needs on offense or defense, but in an effort to find another win or two on the schedule, shoring up the special teams may push the Wildcats over the top this fall.
Longest: 48 yards
Punting average (SEC rank): 39.6 (last)
Kickoff return avg (SEC rank): 21.8 (4th)
Kickoff return TDs (SEC rank): 0 (tied for 5th)
Punt return avg. (SEC rank): 7.4 (10th)
Punt return TDs: (SEC rank): 0 (tied for 9th)
Kickoff/punt return TDs allowed: 2
Austin MacGinnis made 13 of his 17 field goal tries and 22 of his 23 extra point tries in his sophomore season despite being hobbled by a groin injury for much of the season.
“It was hard. I could not practice much. I would just go do my best,” MacGinnis told NBC 18 in Lexington. “I am glad I just got through it and now I want to try and stay injury free.”
A new holder and a new long snapper will need to emerge, as Reese Phillips and Kelly Mason have moved on, but a healthy MacGinnis will likely be one of the league’s better kickers.
Landon Foster averaged 40.3 yards per punt in his fourth and final season as the starter in Lexington, which was next-to-last in the league among qualifying punters last season.
Grant McKinniss will look to follow Foster as a freshman starter when the nation’s fifth-rated punting prospect joins the team for summer workouts. He’ll be competing with walk-ons Bryan Kirshe and Tyler Pack for the job.
Sihiem King took over kickoff return duties as a freshman and averaged 21.7 yards per return. His speed and elusiveness make him an ideal fit for the role — even if his duties as a running back expand a bit this fall.
J.D. Harmon, with a 32-yard average on four returns, is an option as well.
Receiver Ryan Timmons averaged 7.4 yards in eight punt returns last fall. Opportunities for punt returns were limited for the Wildcats last season, as they had a league-low 11 in 2015.
This was a problem area last season, as the kickoff coverage unit ranked 11th in the league, allowing 20.8 yards per return and a touchdown last fall.
The punt coverage unit didn’t fare much better, allowing 10.2 yards per return and a score in 23 punt returns.
Buh’s move to Maryland threw a wrench into the efforts to improve the coverage teams, and House will have his work cut out for him this summer as he tries to mold new units on the fly.
Early in the fourth quarter against South Carolina, the Gamecocks scored to pull within 24-22. Instead of kicking the extra point, South Carolina lined up for a potential two-point conversion.
Pharoh Cooper took the direct snap and ran to his right. He was met near the goal line and fumbled. Freshman defensive end Denzil Ware scooped up the loose ball and raced 98 yards for two points.
It made the margin 26-22, which prevented the Gamecocks from playing for a field goal late in a game that Kentucky would go on to win.
ONE STAT THAT MUST IMPROVE IN 2016
The fastest way to improve a team’s kick coverage is to find a kicker who can kick the ball into the end zone more often. Only LSU, Arkansas and Vanderbilt had fewer touchbacks than Kentucky’s 16 last season.
Part of that can be attributed to MacGinnis’ groin injury, and he should be healthier this fall. Coach Mark Stoops isn’t taking any chances, though, with Pack, an all-state kicker, joining the team as a walk-on this summer.
Pack owns the Kentucky prep record for longest punt (89 yards) and field goal (60 yards). With that kind of leg, he might be a potential option for kickoffs.
BETTER/WORSE IN 2016
Finding a long snapper to replace Mason is a big deal, and redshirt freshman Blake Best will likely get the first crack at assuming those duties.
Aside from that, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. MacGinnis figures to be healthier, which will extend his range a bit on field goals.
The new punter, likely McKinniss, should be able to improve the punting average, and both primary returners are back in the fold for 2016.
Stoops’ quest to improve the overall talent on the roster should pay dividends on the return units this fall, and House should be able to improve the coverage units with a few more available bodies.