Cats thriving on special teams under direction of new assistant coach Dean Hood, emergence of players like Charles Moushey.
Jeff Drummond/Cats Illustrated
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Every college football coach worth his salt will preach that all three phases of the game - offense, defense, and special teams - are equally important.
That was often underscored during Mark Stoops' first four years at Kentucky as special teams proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel for the Wildcats.
Through the first five games of the 2017 season, however, UK has experienced a rebirth in the unit under the direction of new assistant coach Dean Hood and the emergence of some unheralded impact players like Charles Moushey.
"I think Coach Hood has done an unbelievable job," Stoops said earlier this week of the fourth man to hold that job title since he arrived in Lexington in 2013. "He’s got a great demeanor. The players really respond well to him, and I think it’s a sign of your team being unselfish.
"Those guys work hard. Like I said, extra meeting times, extra practice, they do a lot. They take great pride in what they do. Guys knowing their role. There’s certain guys like (Charles) Moushey that just is on special teams, and it’s such an impact."
Moushey, a pole vaulter in track and field who walked on with the football team as a senior, has been a thorn in opponents' sides on UK's kick and punt coverage units. He has been credited with six tackles, two of them coming inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and has downed a punt at the 1-yard line.
A former high school teammate of UK running back Benny Snell Jr., Moushey frustrated Eastern Michigan's special teams unit so much last week that the Eagles often assigned two players to mirror him down the field. More opponents may follow suit in actually scheming for the Cats' special teams "ace."
Stoops said unselfish players like Moushey represent a "whatever it takes" mindset that has helped the Cats get off to a 4-1 start this season despite not quite clicking offensively.
"I think what sets him apart is he's got a passion for it," Hood said of the 6-foot, 180-pound Moushey. "... He's got a passion for football. He's got a passion for his team. He's got a passion for being the best, and people to this point just haven't been able to match it. He's just willed it to happen."
The special teams unit also got a blocked punt last week - UK's first since 2013 - from freshman linebacker/end Josh Paschal to set up what proved to be the decisive touchdown late in game.
It's sometimes unusual to find such a highly regarded prospect on special teams at UK, but Stoops has made it an "all hands on deck" situation, according to Hood.
"When guys see a high-profile guy from a recruiting standpoint and a guy who's out there with the starters (on defense) I think that just fuels the fire," he said.
The Cats are also sixth in the SEC in net punting average (40.4) after struggling royally in that category last season. Opponents are managing only 1.3 yards per return, and new punter Matt Panton has pinned 12 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Three have been downed at the 1.
While he likes what he's seen to date, Hood is cautioning the unit that it shouldn't get too caught up in the praise from fans and media.
"The big thing to remember is pride comes before the fall," he said. "We had a good week, everybody's kinda been patting them on the back, so I've taken the other (approach). We can get a lot better. They've worked hard this week and responded. Hopefully, it's more of the same."
* UK defensive coordinator Matt House said Wednesday that Missouri's uptempo offensive scheme provides some special challenges for the Cats. One of them is UK must abandon its usual substitution patterns in favor of a more conservative approach. "They like to go fast... You gotta (rotate) players by series. You can't do it within the middle of a series."
* Kentucky ranks among the SEC's sack leaders, but the Cats may find Saturday's matchup a little more challenging. Missouri has allowed only four sacks this season, the second-lowest figure in the league. "I think (Tigers quarterback Drew) Lock does a great job of getting the ball out fast," House said. "And their line protects well. A lot of that is a product of their offense, but some of it a product of their players, too."
* Asked if there's additional pressure on the defensive backs this week facing a spread offense that uses the entire field, House agreed. "And they'll throw the ball downtown probably six to eight times, maybe more."
* Charles Walker's status is uncertain for Saturday's game. The Cats plan to go with freshman Lynn Bowden again as the punt return specialist if Walker (ribs) is unable to go. "I sleep better at night when Charles is back there," Hood said. "... But Lynn has worked his tail off, he's the No. 2 guy, and he had a good look in his eye (last week)."