WHO HAS THE EDGE? Kentucky and Florida position by position

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

When Kentucky and Florida battle at Kroger Field on Saturday night the talent level between the two programs will be closer than it has been in a very long time.

Cats Illustrated takes a look at UK and Florida on paper and gives the advantage to one side at each position.

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QUARTERBACK

Stephen Johnson is finally starting to get his due. He's rated No. 10 in the country according to ESPN's Total QBR and that puts him in elite company. Whether you think Johnson is one of the ten best quarterbacks in the country or not, he's putting Kentucky in a position to win games every week. He executes drives and makes clutch plays. Through three games in 2017, Johnson is 42/67 (62.7-percent). One thing about Johnson is his yardage numbers, touchdowns and interceptions will all be low most of the time because he doesn't make a lot of high risk throws to receivers and Kentucky leans heavily on the run game and play action. But his efficiency has been strong. He now has 132 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, Feleipe Franks has had a promising start to the year, giving Florida hope at the position that they haven't had in a while. He's 23/37 (62.2-percent) for 287 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. In fact, Franks' numbers are strikingly similar to Johnson's when you factor in the fewer attempts (Malik Zaire ate up some playing time and UF has only played two games to Kentucky's three).

Give the edge to seniority and Kentucky's best winner behind center in some time.

The Edge: KENTUCKY

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RUNNING BACK

Benny Snell's increased touches haven't exactly offset the absence of Boom Williams. Kentucky's run numbers are down from where they were a year ago. But there are signs that the run game has life. UK's run game has been less explosive than it was a year ago but it is becoming, once again, methodical. Snell has 71 carries for 272 yards and three touchdowns putting him solidly on pace to exceed 1,000 and match last season's touchdown total. Sihiem King has played very well the last two weeks but the staff leaned much more heavily on Snell against South Carolina.

Florida's running back situation is very much by committee. The Gators' backs have just 37 carries through two games (quarterbacks have accounted for 19 carries, by comparison). Those carries have been divided between slasher Malik Davis (5 for 102 yards), Lamical Perine (18 for 63) and Mark Thompson (12 for 43), who is more of a bullish runner. They have had limited success but in theory should be a complementary group.

The Edge: KENTUCKY

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WIDE RECEIVER

Kentucky's wide receivers have gotten better each week under Lamar Thomas in 2017. They started very slow against USM, failing to get involved in the offense. Then Blake Bone broke out against EKU and against South Carolina there was consistent play from Garrett Johnson and Tavin Richardson. Charles Walker has been consistent. This is not a group that will draw a lot of attention from SEC or national writers but if they avoid drops, block well and combine for 10 catches most weeks then they're doing their job. Steady and unspectacular is probably their role although they do need to make the most of their opportunities, as Mark Stoops said on Monday.

Florida is clearly missing Antonio Callaway but they still have some weapons at receiver, most notably sophomore Tyrie Cleveland (9 catches, 149 yards), who is probably the best big play threat for either team in Saturday's game. He has been a consistent threat against Michigan and Tennessee. Josh Hammond also must be accounted for and while Kadarius Toney has had limited touches (6 catches, 67 yards) expect him to become more involved in the offense. Brandon Powell is still around, too.

The Edge: FLORIDA

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TIGHT END

C.J. Conrad has been nothing short of outstanding for Kentucky through three games. His blocking is always going to be solid, at least, and he has been the big play threat in the pass game that Kentucky has needed him to be. Greg Hart chipped in with a huge third down catch against South Carolina and is reliable, and the staff is working Justin Rigg onto the field more.

Florida has some talent at tight end with C'yontae Lewis (3 catches, 20 yards) and Moral Stephens, who you might remember as a one-time Kentucky target on the recruiting scene.

The Edge: KENTUCKY

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OFFENSIVE LINE

There are definitely still reasons to be concerned about Kentucky's offensive line but they did put together a much improved performance against the Gamecocks. You still have to wonder about the snap issues (they weren't perfect, even if improved, against the Gamecocks) and the penalties but the line played more sound, got more push in the run game and provided Johnson with more time to throw. Mason Wolfe is giving the group some improved depth.

Florida's offensive line has been spotty at best in 2017, although they have faced more talent up front than Kentucky's line has thus far. They have not given Franks or Zaire much time to throw the ball downfield and Florida's rushing numbers speak to a line that's not blowing open a lot of holes.

The Edge: KENTUCKY

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DEFENSIVE LINE

If you go strictly by the rushing yards allowed by both teams this shouldn't be close...and that's in Kentucky's favor.

However, if you watch the tape it's not so simple. Kentucky's defensive line is playing good assignment football. They have played contain, gotten some push, occupied blockers and made life a lot easier for Kentucky's improved linebacking corps as well. Adrian Middleton has been a factor more often than not, guys up the middle at the nose have played better football, and the young guys are bringing solid energy.

That said, Florida's defensive ends (Jordan Sherit, Jachai Polite, Cece Jefferson, Jabari Zuniga) are still the best collection of players on either line. Their tackles have not been especially strong in 2017 and that should be a reason for hope.

The Edge: FLORIDA

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LINEBACKERS

It's the first time in a while that Kentucky has the edge against Florida at the linebacker position and it's really not that close. Even with All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones out, Kentucky still has two more all-conference contenders in Denzil Ware and Josh Allen. Both have been difficult to block and have played sound football through three. Eli Brown stepped up in a big way in Jones' absence and in limited action Jamar Watson made a huge impact as well. Courtney Love is playing the best football of his college career, still racking up big tackle numbers but avoiding the misses that sometimes plagued him last year.

David Reese is a capable contributor for the Gators but he's been inconsistent so far. Jeremiah Moon is athletic but has trouble in the box. This group does not have great talent or depth, especially by Florida's standards.

The Edge: KENTUCKY

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DEFENSIVE BACKS

Kentucky's secondary has been evaluated too harshly over the past couple of years, probably because expectations have been out-sized. That's not their fault. They have been okay through three games. While Jake Bentley put up good numbers last week, Derrick Baity still won SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors and Mike Edwards played very well, too. The group executed its game plan of making the Gamecocks drive the field and they avoided big plays after the first from scrimmage. This is a good group that could still be among the better secondaries in the SEC.

Meanwhile, Florida's secondary was expected to have some issues with lost production and experience from last season. But Duke Dawson has been fantastic, the Gators have picked off five passes, and the secondary has carried the defense. This group has been boosted big-time by several young players who are performing better than expected so early in their careers. They will not be easy to pass against.

The Edge: Slight edge to Florida

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Kentucky has been very strong on special teams in two out of three weeks this season and that's a major improvement. Austin MacGinnis is as good and reliable as college kickers get. The coverage was good in week one, bad in week two, and strategy kicked in last week with solid execution following. They will craft another strategy for covering Florida's return men. Matt Panton was very good against South Carolina and has been a big improvement this year.

Florida has one of the better special teams situations in the country. Eddy Pineiro is one of the better kickers around and Johnny Townsend is averaging more than 50 yards per punt through two games. Pineiro has booted touchbacks on all his kickoffs. Tyrie Cleveland is dangerous on kickoff returns.

The Gators' punt coverage has been spotty, however, so it will be interesting to see if Lynn Bowden gets a chance this week.

The Edge: FLORIDA

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