Cats preparing for South Carolina offense that has featured numerous playmakers early in the season.
Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated
LEXINGTON, Ky. - A quick glance at the Southeastern Conference team statistics through two weeks of the season does not seem to indicate that South Carolina should strike fear in the heart of the Kentucky defense.
After all, the Gamecocks currently rank 12th in rushing offense, eighth in passing offense and 13th in total offense. They have been outgained by 322 yards already on the season.
Don't let that fool you, says the UK defensive staff.
South Carolina is off to a 2-0 start thanks in large part to some dangerous playmakers who have come up with timely displays of their talent. Receiver/return specialist Deebo Samuel, tight end Hayden Hurst and quarterback Jake Bentley have earned the full respect of the 2-0 Wildcats in preparation for their SEC opener.
The trio has accounted for eight of the Gamecocks nine touchdowns scored this season. Bentley has thrown four touchdown passes, including two to Samuel and one to Hurst. Both Samuel and Hurst have a rushing touchdown to their credit. Samuel, one of the most dangerous specialists in the country, has also returned two kickoffs for scores.
"He's really good with the ball in his hands," UK defensive coordinator Matt House said of Samuel, a 6-foot, 210-pound junior from Inman, S.C. "They get him the ball a lot of different way, whether it be through jets (sweeps), tunnel screens, taking (deep) shots. So he's definitely a guy we've got to be aware of where he's at. He's a big-time player."
Bentley, a 6-3, 220-pound sophomore out of Alabama, has completed 61.4 percent of his passes (35 of 57) for 402 yards and four touchdowns with only one interception. He's not a dual-threat, but he's strong in the pocket.
"He's very efficient. The more you watch him, the more you appreciate him," House said. "He's kind of a gamer. He does some things that are really, really good."
Hurst provides a new kind of challenge to the UK defense, which hasn't faced a playmaker like the 6-5, 250-pounder at the position in its opening wins over Southern Miss and EKU.
"Their tight end's really good," House said. "... They do a lot of things with him. He's not always in a tight end position. He's flexed out as a receiver, he's in the core as a fullback, he's on the line of scrimmage as a tight end, so they do a good job of moving him around."
"It's definitely a big challenge," said UK senior middle linebacker Courtney Love, "because you really have to be stout in the run game, but you don't know when they're going to pop pass, and for me, especially, sometimes I have to cover the tight end. I have to be prepared for the quick passes."
Practicing daily against UK's own talented tight end, C.J. Conrad, could help the Cats simulate the Hurst matchup, House said, but it's not a situation where they can put too much emphasis on him.
"They've got several different playmakers which makes it hard to roll (the defense toward a specific player)," he said. "If you just have one guy, you can roll it and take out a guy, but it's hard to do when you've got several guys like that."
* Kentucky could be without star linebacker Jordan Jones on Saturday in Columbia. the junior weakside backer has not practiced this week after suffering what was originally described as a minor shoulder injury against Eastern Kentucky, and on Wednesday Matt House declined to comment when asked about the player's status. "I'm going to leave that to coach Stoops to talk about," House said. A UK spokesperson said rumors of Jones suffering a potential season-ending injury were not true but noted Stoops would need to provide any additional information.
* Asked about UK's improved depth on the defensive side of the ball this season, House noted that every player on the two-deep depth chart has seen "live game action when the game's in the balance, when snaps matter. I think that's huge."
* UK special teams coach Dean Hood sees Samuel as one of the biggest challenges his coverage unit will face all season. "He's scary... and they've got a great scheme." Samuel has fielded two kickoff this season and taken them both back for touchdowns. South Carolina is averaging 44 yards per return as a team. That's particularly daunting when UK is coming off a game where EKU almost broke two for scores if not for late tackles by kicker Austin MacGinnis. "Guys trying to do too much," Hood said. He also noted that MacGinnis promised his teammates better kicks this week.