2019 Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

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    (Photo via Lexington Herald-Leader)

    2019 Record: 4-4 overall (2-4, SEC)

    Head Coach: Mark Stoops (7th year, 40-43 overall)
    Location: Lexington, Kentucky

    Leading Passer: Sawyer Smith (RS-So.) — 118-of-155, 674 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT
    Leading Rusher: Lynn Bowden Jr. (Jr.) — 75 carries, 598 yards, 4 TD, 8.0 YPC
    Leading Receiver: Lynn Bowden Jr. (Jr.) — 30 receptions, 348 yards, TD
    Leading Tackler: Yusuf Corker (So.) — 57 tackles (38 solo)

    Total Offense Rank: 103rd (355.4)
    Passing Offense Rank:
    118th (154.0)
    Rushing Offense Rank: 32nd (201.4)
    Scoring Offense Rank: 113th (21.3)

    Total Defense Rank: 46th (355.4)
    Passing Defense Rank: 14th (180.5)
    Rushing Defense Rank: 83rd (174.9)
    Scoring Defense Rank: 32nd (21.3)

    Here’s a complete preview of Tennessee’s opponent this Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats.

    Offense

    Kentucky’s offense starts and begins with junior wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. this season. Though he’s the Wildcats’ best wide receiver and best athlete, Bowden has been serving as the team’s starting quarterback of late.

    Terry Wilson, who started the season as the starting quarterback, tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of the second game of the season against Eastern Michigan. Troy graduate transfer Sawyer Smith relieved Wilson, but Smith has missed the last three games due to injury. In five games this season, Smith is completing 46.6 percent of his passes.

    Bowden has been instrumental for the Kentucky offense considering the circumstances. He played quarterback in high school and made his first career start at QB in college against Arkansas in October. Bowden rushed for 196 yards and two touchdowns as he won SEC Offensive Player of the Week, leading the Wildcats to victory. Bowden will likely play most of the snaps at quarterback against the Vols on Saturday.

    Helping shoulder the load of carrying the football is junior running back A.J. Rose. On the season, Rose has rushed for 508 yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries. Kavosiey Smoke has also burst onto the scene this year, rushing for 341 yards and a team-high four touchdowns. Smoke is the first running back in program history to rush for a touchdown of at least 32 yards in each of the first two games of the season.

    Up front, protecting Bowden, Rose, and Smoke is an offensive line that returns three starters from a season ago — center Drake Jackson, left guard Logan Stenberg, and left tackle Landon Young. Led by those three, the Wildcats’ offensive line has been recognized as a member of the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award, which recognizes the most outstanding offensive line in all of college football.

    With Bowden as the starting quarterback, former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner has become the go-to target for Bowden. Wagner has 13 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns this season. He’s also drawn an incredible 12 pass interference penalties on 39 targets during his career.

    Justin Rigg and Keaton Upshaw have replaced the services of C.J. Conrad this fall. The duo has combined for 15 catches and 177 yards in seven games this season.

    Defense

    Kentucky has always had a strong, physical defense under Mark Stoops, and this season is no different.

    Despite losing several key players in the secondary from a season ago, Kentucky has allowed just one passing play of 40 yards this season. The Cats are also tied for 10th in the country and tied for second in the SEC in fewest plays allowed from scrimmage of at least 40 yards. As a result, Kentucky has allowed 24 points or less in 20 of its last 23 games dating back to last season.

    In the secondary, Jordan Griffin starts at strong safety, Yusuf Corker starts at free safety, Tyrell Ajian starts at nickel, and Cedric Dort Jr. and Brandin Echols are the starting corners.

    Kash Daniels serves as the heart and soul of not only the Kentucky defense, but of the entire team. Daniels led the team in tackles last season with 84 and also had 7.5 tackles for loss to go along with five quarterback hits. This season, he’s been limited due to injury, but he has 36 tackles, four tackles for loss, an interception, and three passes defended in seven games.

    Replacing first-round pick Josh Allen has been a tall task, but junior outside linebackers Josh Paschal and Jamar Watson are doing their best to do so. Paschal is tied for the team lead in tackles for a loss with six, while Watson has 5.5 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, and a team-high seven quarterback hurries.

    Sophomore DeAndre Square is also a key play-maker for the Cats’ defense. Square is currently second on the team in tackles with 56 and has four tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and three quarterback hurries.

    Along the defensive line, Kentucky has seven returning letter winners. That group includes two starters in nose guard Quinton Bohanna and Calvin Taylor Jr., who stands at 6-foot-9. Taylor has a team-high five sacks on the season along with six tackles for a loss. He was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week two weeks ago after recording two sacks in Kentucky’s win over Missouri. Bohanna has two tackles for a loss on the year, including a sack.

    T.J. Carter starts at defensive end, where he’s recorded 17 tackles this season, three of which have been for a loss.

    Special Teams

    On special teams, Kentucky punter Max Duffy is one of the best in the country, and he’s a Ray Guy Award candidate. Duffy is averaging 48.8 yards per punt, second-best in the SEC and in the entire country.

    Redshirt freshman Chance Poore and junior Matt Ruffolo serve as Kentucky’s kickers. Poor is 4-for-8 on field goals on the season with a long of 46 yards, while Ruffolo is 2-for-3. Ruffolo made his first career field goal against Mississippi State earlier this year, and then he made a 50-yarder to beat Arkansas two weeks later.

    Bowden handles kickoff and punt return duties. He is averaging 25.0 yards per kickoff return and 13.2 yards per punt return. Last season, Bowden had two punt returns for a touchdown.



    Ben McKee
    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He grew up an Army brat and lived in Alabama for a bit, but he bleeds orange. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also a co-host on the RTI Live Show and RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.