FIRST HALF GRADES: UK football report card through six games

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Cats Illustrated goes back over the last six games and grades every position unit and the coaches for their production and success to the halfway point.

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QUARTERBACK

Grade: A

We can debate where Stephen Johnson would rank nationally in terms of the top quarterbacks in college football, but there is no question he has improved substantially since last season. He is now 12-5 as Kentucky's primary quarterback. Darin Hinshaw's big offseason focus, in coaching Johnson, was ball security. The Cats' quarterback has turned the ball over only three times in six games (two picks, one fumble). That's a big improvement from last season when fumbles, especially, were a problem.

Consistency has been the most impressive part of Johnson's game. Last year, as against Louisville, he showed flashes of great potential and performed at a high level. But he also followed that up with some clunkers. This year it would be hard to point at one game and say Johnson didn't play well. He is 99/155 (63.9-percent) for 1,238 yards and nine touchdowns, and has rushed for 144 yards on 47 carries after sacks.

Drew Barker is the only other quarterback on the roster who has logged snaps this season and he had an unsuccessful stretch with two series against Eastern Kentucky.

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RUNNING BACK

Grade: B

It's hard to grade the running backs because so much of their success is related to the offensive line (actually every position is interrelated with others like that) but Benny Snell has started to come on strong. He's now the SEC's second-leading rusher behind only Nick Chubb of Georgia. Snell now has 123 carries, 526 yards and six touchdowns through six games, so he's on pace for another 1,000 yard year even though the going has been tougher than it was last season. He's also second in the conference in yards after contact.

Snell has 100 yard games against Eastern Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri but has been held under four yards per carry three times as well (USM, South Carolina, EMU).

Sihiem King has looked good at times but his contributions (37 carries, 179 yards, no touchdowns) have been modest for a lead backup through six games. He does have eight receptions for 59 yards. King surpassed the 60-yard mark twice (Eastern Kentucky, Florida).

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WIDE RECEIVER

Grade: B+

Kentucky's wide receivers have been targeted more and more as the season has gone, as the unit has gained confidence and has started to come into its own. The group does not have the gaudy numbers of some other units across the country, but across the board they have shown improvement.

Garrett Johnson (27 receptions, 333 yards, 2 TD) is the unit's top producer so far and his two best games have come in the last two weeks, with eight catches for 61 yards against EMU and seven catches for 111 yards and a touchdown against Missouri. Kayaune Ross only has 19 catches for 160 yards on the year but the majority of that production has come over the last two weeks as well and his yardage production has increased four weeks in a row.

Blake Bone, averaging more than 18 yards per reception, helped provide needed big plays against Eastern Michigan (three catches, 93 yards) and made a big difference in the win over Missouri. The emergence of Lynn Bowden is a positive development in recent weeks.

Joshua Ali and Isaiah Epps have seen snaps this year but their impact on the stat sheet has been negligible. Still, their experience this year should help them when they're called upon more next season. This unit's grade is in part a reflection of how they have exceeded expectations.

RELATED: Midseason superlatives | The good, the bad & the ugly

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TIGHT END

Grade: B+

It's hard to fault C.J. Conrad and Greg Hart for not being targeted more often. In real terms, their statistical impact has still been impressive in spite of the small number of targets. C.J. Conrad is Kentucky's second-leading receiver (nine catches, 195 yards, three touchdowns) and is averaging a whopping 21.67 yards per reception. Hart also has a touchdown reception to his credit.

Conrad's chemistry with Johnson in the pass game has improved and the ratio of catches to targets has certainly improved from last season. But the offense has to find a way to get Conrad the ball more frequently in the second half of the season.

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OFFENSIVE LINE

Grade: D

Kentucky's offensive line has been, without question, the biggest disappointment for the team, at least on that side of the ball. Last year was one of the program's best lines in modern history but the unit has regressed significantly in 2017. There have been a steady stream of apparently minor injuries to linemen sprinkled throughout the season and while the program does not have the luxury of great established depth as it did a year ago, there still has not been the consistency you look for. Three different centers have seen time with the bright spot being Drake Jackson's sound performance against Missouri.

Landon Young and Kyle Meadows have had their moments at tackle but there have still been protection issues against defensive ends, most noticeably against Eastern Michigan and for stretches against Florida. The interior of the line has not gotten the same push it did a year ago and there have been too many penalties as well.

Kentucky is 90th nationally in rushing and is one of the worst Power Five teams in the country in terms of yards per carry (3.6). The Cats are 115th in the country in standard down yards per carry and 105th in the country in sack rate on passing downs (11.5-percent).

There is not one Kentucky lineman that has performed at an All-SEC level and that, coupled with snap issues, penalties and breakdowns, make this unit the main culprit for the offense's struggles.

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DEFENSIVE LINE

Grade: B

Kentucky's defensive line does have its limitations. It ranks 100th in the country in havoc rate if you look at the advanced stats and defensive linemen for Kentucky are just not going to put up big stat lines. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to knock the group's play too much, considering the fact that the Cats rank 11th in the country in run defense through six games. Although the Cats have not faced a lot of great rushing attacks so far, and that number might be inflated compared to what it ranks at the end of the season (Florida and Missouri did run effectively when they needed to), six games is a big sample and the improvement is real.

Adrian Middleton, widely believed to be the Cats' best defensive lineman in the preseason, has been the unit's top statistical producer with just 13 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack. On the whole, Matt Elam, Quinton Bohanna and true freshman Quinton Bohanna have given Kentucky improved play at the nose.

Calvin Taylor and Kordell Looney have made their first substantial contributions as Wildcats and have had their moments. Josh Paschal doesn't have big numbers this year but he has been a valuable pass rushing commodity in some third down situations.

Kentucky's defensive line does have some limitations but the group has overperformed and allowed the Cats to make some opponents one dimensional. They have not been dominant, but they have been good enough.

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LINEBACKERS

Grade: A

Before the season a lot of people believed Kentucky's linebackers would be the strength of the team and the first six games are vindication for that opinion. Even with All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones missing substantial time with an injury, the other players and backups have played at a high level.

Josh Allen's emergence as one of the nation's top pass rushers (6.5 sacks, third nationally) has been the story of the year and he could have a hard decision to make (or maybe it's an easy decision) after the season. He also has three hurries and two forced fumbles. His pass rushing complement, Denzil Ware, hasn't always put up huge numbers (17 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss), but he has forced and recovered two more fumbles so he's making big plays.

When Jones was out against South Carolina, sophomore Eli Brown stepped up in a big way (he's been solid this year), and when Brown went out in that game, Jamar Watson stepped up, too. The unit's depth has been on display.

Courtney Love's play has improved as a senior at middle linebacker.

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DEFENSIVE BACKS

Grade: C-

Aside from the offensive line, the secondary has probably been the team's biggest disappointment in 2017. Kentucky has faced quality quarterbacks like Jake Bentley, Brogan Roback and Drew Lock so far (although it doesn't get easier in the second half), but the results have not been good so far. Kentucky's pass defense efficiency is ranked 86th in the country and things seem to be getting worse, with Missouri hitting on several big plays on poor coverage attempts by Wildcat defenders.

Darius West has had a breakout season and has been a force against the run, but there is room for the Cats' junior to improve in coverage. Mike Edwards has been one of Kentucky's better players in coverage this season and he, also a junior, has lived up to his billing as one of the SEC's better safeties. Edwards is tied with Love for first on the team with 43 tackles, and he also has three interceptions and four pass breakups. He's a strong contender for all-conference honors if his current production continues.

Derrick Baity earned SEC honors one week but he gave up a big play against the Tigers and has had some ups and downs this season, as has fellow cornerback Chris Westry. The Cats' backups, Jordan Griffin and Lonnie Johnson, have been very much up and down although their inexperience makes that easy to understand. Johnson had a particularly tough game against the Tigers, who picked on him multiple times.

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Grade: A+

The special teams have been the most improved unit on the team and it isn't even close. The Wildcats have one of the best special teams units in the country. Matt Panton's 42.5 yards per punt are a big improvement from Grant McKinniss' numbers last year, and on top of that 12 of his 33 punts have pinned opponents inside their 20 yard line.

Austin MacGinnis has connected on 13 of 18 field goals, making him one of the sport's most prolific kickers to date in 2017. His misses have mostly been very long attempts.

Charles Walker has been one of the best and most efficient punt returners in the country, making both heady decisions and explosive plays, particularly against Florida.

Charles Moushey has seven tackles and has emerged as a big-time coverage player. Kentucky has executed a fake punt and has stuffed a fake punt. Johnson blocked a key Missouri field goal attempt and Paschal blocked a punt against Eastern Michigan.

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COACHING

Grade: B-

The one thing that stands out that will always be difficult to forget, on the negative side, are the blunders against Florida. Most other criticisms will be either controversial or oversimplified (the offensive playcalling, for instance).

Kentucky's coaching staff has done a good job with Johnson, the wide receivers, the defensive line and the special teams unit. They are obviously playing to win ball control, field position games, and a team that is good on special teams, turnover margin and field position is usually a well coached squad. The Wildcats have a very good track record in close games this year.

Still, the biggest talking point for national media figures this week was the Florida game and that rightfully knocks this grade down from what would be an otherwise very good score.

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