Midseason superlatives: Top performers in the first half of UK's season

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

Six games into the 2017 season Kentucky is 5-1. It's actually not an entirely unfamiliar position for the Wildcats during the Mark Stoops era, but only last year did the Wildcats finish strong enough to reach the postseason.

Let's take a look at some of the top players, stories and moments six games into Kentucky's 12-game regular season.

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Offensive MVP: Quarterback Stephen Johnson

Benny Snell is the SEC's second-leading rusher and he's coming on stronger as the season ages, but Kentucky's senior quarterback is the offensive MVP for the first half of the season. He has shown impressive development as a second-year starter in the conference and after guiding Kentucky to a 7-4 record as the primary quarterback in 2016, he's now got a record of 12-5 as the Cats' main man behind center.

Johnson's completion rate has improved to 64-percent, he has a 9-2 TD-INT ratio, he's throwing for more than 200 yards per game and he has only lost one fumble. In spite of losing Dorian Baker and Jeff Badet in the offseason, he's managed to put up significantly better numbers than last season. He's more accurate, more consistent and he's still winning.

Runner ups: Benny Snell, C.J. Conrad, Garrett Johnson

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Defensive MVP: Outside linebacker Josh Allen

There's a reason that there was a report last week indicating that several people plugged into the NFL scene have started to talk about Allen as a potential first round pick after this season, his junior year. He has refined his technique, is playing better with his hands, and is just as fast and athletic even as he has put on weight and matured physically.

Allen leads the SEC in sacks (6.5) and that number is good for third nationally (and first among all linebackers). He has a very good chance of earning first team All-SEC honors if this pace continues.

Runner up: Mike Edwards

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Special Teams MVP: Austin MacGinnis

There are several good candidates here but MacGinnis is the obvious choice. He was 4/4 on field goal attempts with a 53-yarder in the Cats' last game, a 40-34 win against Missouri. So they needed those kicks. Although MacGinnis missed the potential game winner against Florida (it would have been a tough kick), he's now the program's all-time leading scorer. He's 13/18 on field goals overall and has 16 touchbacks on 37 kickoffs.

Runner ups: Charles Walker, Matt Panton, Charles Moushey

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Breakout Player of the First Half: Blake Bone

Who would have guessed that Bone, a senior, would contend for an honor like this? Not everyone will agree with Bone as the choice here ("breakout" is tough to define), but it's clear that he has done a lot to help ease the pain that might have come from the departures of two starters that were expected to return at one point.

Bone only has eight receptions but he's averaging 18.25 yards per catch and has two touchdowns. He has made several big catches including some that played a big role in positive outcomes for the Wildcats.

Runner up: Darius West

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Newcomer of the First Half: Matt Panton

Before the season almost everyone would have picked Lynn Bowden or Josh Paschal, and while Bowden's production has been slow to come, it would be tough to call either a disappointment. They have both flashed real potential; enough to make any fan hopeful for the future.

But Panton has been such an improvement at punter, it has elevated the entire special teams unit. Kentucky was one of the worst punting teams in the nation a year ago. The graduate transfer from Columbia has shown a better leg than expected and has upped his own average from a year ago. He has been just as accurate with as much precision as advertised, and that's a big reasons Kentucky has been so improved in the field position game.

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Assistant Coach of the First Half: Dean Hood

Last year Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw got all the praise for what they did with the offense, producing two 1,000 yard rushers and turning a two-star JUCO transfer quarterback into an SEC winner.

This year, Dean Hood took over a special teams unit that had shown improvement in 2016 but hadn't been really good in a long time, and he's produced one of the nation's best units. From coverage to returns, from field position to field goal accuracy, from a successful fake against Mizzou to stuffing a fake by USM, from improved punting to everything else, you can make the case that Kentucky's special teams unit has won the Cats three games (USM, South Carolina, Missouri).

Runner up: Wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas

Best Team Performance: at South Carolina

Had Kentucky finished strong against Florida that might have won this honor, but Kentucky's 23-13 win in Columbia, with Deebo Samuel on the field for most of the game, was the Cats' most impressive performance of the year. It looks even better after the Gamecocks nearly knocked off Texas A&M on the road and dominated Arkansas at home (minus Deebo). The Cats controlled the game against the Gamecocks, executing well enough in all three phases.

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