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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Know Your Enemy: Kentucky Wildcats

Sports editor Jackson Reyes sits down with Cole Parke, the sports editor of the Kentucky Kernel for a Q&A

Kentucky's offense lines up during the first half of its 26-16 win over Florida Saturday, Sept. 10, 2021.
Kentucky's offense lines up during the first half of its 26-16 win over Florida Saturday, Sept. 10, 2021.

The No. 22 Florida Gators head on the road to take on the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday.

Florida will look to continue its three-game winning streak with its second SEC matchup of the season. The Gators will also look to avoid their first three-game losing streak to the Wildcats since 1951. Kentucky comes into the matchup 4-0 and 1-0 in conference play. 

I sat down with Cole Parke, the sports editor at the Kentucky Kernel, the independent student newspaper at the University of Kentucky, to break down the matchup. 

What does this matchup mean for both teams with Florida not having lost three straight to Kentucky since 1951?

Parke: “It’s definitely well-known amongst Kentucky fans about that reign of dominance. Very few weeks other than maybe Tennessee get as hectic as Gator hate week does around here. You know, Kentucky fans certainly are not fans of Florida, to say the least. The fans are going to be showing out in droves. You remember two years ago would have been my freshman year, when Kentucky beat a top 10 ranked Florida at the time. Rushed the field after that, and I was there, I witnessed that whole thing go down and winning in Gainesville last year was massive as well. There were celebrations in Lexington that night, even though it was a road match. So I definitely think that both sides are pretty aware of what the stakes are going into. And I mean, Florida, once again, they got a massive win over Tennessee. So they're ranked, they're getting some respect after maybe not having as much ambition going into the season for most casual fans. But now they're kind of on the map. And once you're on map, you don't want to get off the map. You want to stay there. So Florida is looking to prove itself prove that you know, it is still that same Florida team that can beat Kentucky and doesn't have issues with the Wildcats. And Kentucky is still trying to prove it's had four straight victories this season. Several of them by large margins, but just hasn't looked super convincing. And many of them it's been a lot of little mistakes. So Kentucky has a lot to prove of itself. There's a lot of questions as to whether or not this Kentucky team can actually perform against well respectfully good opponents, their opponents so far in Eastern Kentucky, Akron, Vanderbilt and Ball State. So it's definitely not been the cream of the crop, to say the least. Florida's a team that has been tested against a good opponent, they have the win over Tennessee and they looked great doing it. So I definitely think that this is a game about for Kentucky, it's a game about proving itself that it does belong. And that it is still that the team that a lot of people hope it can be and for Florida it's also about proving itself but more so proving that hey, we're here now and we should stay here.”

What are the strengths of this Kentucky team?

Parke: “Obviously, the defense is always good. Brad White, I think he’s a fantastic defensive coordinator. And even times in the defense has had a lot of little mistakes. It seems to still hold itself up pretty well. And, you know, the offense is a big question mark, because when the offense is clicking, it looks fantastic. When you got Ray Davis, former Vanderbilt Commodore, you got Devin Leary, former NC State quarterback. When those guys are clicking, they have some great great receivers, great backs, good tight ends, great quarterback. The problem is they're not always clicking. And you saw that against Eastern Kentucky, for example, against an FCS opponent, Kentucky went into halftime tied 7-7 because they just couldn't get going on offense. No matter what it tried to do. It just could not get going. But once it did get going, it went on to score 21 points in the second half. So, you know, it's shown that when that offense is clicking, it's very very good. The defense is usually sturdy So the strengths are, you know, I don't want to say like, the whole team, because the whole team hasn't been clicking at both points this year, you know, you saw when on the offense started picking it up a little bit against EKU. Even the defense started to struggle a little bit. So the strength in this team really lie in which side of the ball is looking good at that given moment, because so far, we haven't really seen them put it together. But the idea that they could put it together and I know In sports, the you know, the, the idea of ‘what could they do’ is always one of the biggest questions, but this Kentucky team has, I believe the pieces to be very, very good. It's just going to be about whether or not it can prove that and start clicking together as a unit and not just as individual pieces.”

How has the defense, in particular, looked? And how have guys like defensive back Maxwell Hairston and defensive lineman Deon Walker impacted the team?

Parke: “Yeah, for sure. So a little lesser known fact, I suppose is that Maxwell Hairston recorded two pick sixes against Vandy and became the first Kentucky Wildcat in history to record two pick sixes in one game. So massive achievement for him. He's a guy that you know, I expected him to be solid going into this year, but I don't think even I expected how good he was going to be. He's been doing really, really well. We touched on Deone there and another guy I want to give some credit to is a Trevin Wallace, he's been doing really, really sturdy. It's just it's the culture that Brad white culminates in the defense is, is definitely one of a next man up and just go make a play. So you talk to any of these defensive guys, and they're very, very humble, you know, they're not ones who are going to take a lot of the credit even after his massive game, you know, Hairston was like ‘glory to God, you know, I appreciate my team for setting me up to do that.’ And he wouldn't really take the credit for himself. So the defense in that way is, is special because you know, you have those guys who have those immense impacts but also you know, they're not ones who want to take credit so they're willing to let other guys who maybe aren't as big of names or haven't done as much this year, take some of that glory for themselves. So it's really you know, really special team based football in that way.”

What would you say the main strength of the defense is?

Parke: “I think Kentucky is not always but sometimes pretty sneak good on the line, really forcing pressure on a quarterback. Sometimes they struggle a little bit with a quarterback who can run a little bit but I think they're pretty good at applying pressure. And then I'm a big fan of the linebackers that Kentucky has. Maybe each one has their own strengths but sometimes the corners may struggle a little bit but if you can get one of those short passes the linebackers are really, really good. And you combine that with the line who's good at forcing pressure who might lead a quarterback into trying to make a quick throw to get it out of there when you got those linebackers so it's really the combination of a strong D line and a really good linebacker group that I think is what makes this team so so dangerous is that they put pressure on the quarterback; make the quarterback start panicking a little bit to try to make a you know, ‘I gotta get the ball out of his pocket’ and hopefully throw it out to one of those linebackers.”

The Gators and Wildcats both having transfer quarterbacks starting this season. What are your thoughts on Devin Leary’s performance this season with Kentucky?

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Parke: “Leary’s a very polarizing guy so far at Kentucky. he's one of those guys that a lot of the fans you know are like I don't know that he's playing super great. I don't know that he's really struggling but the numbers seem to indicate he's doing fine if you really break down his stats like some some of the advanced stats, some of his numbers. He's doing solid. The big thing is something that I don't think stats track as well. And it's something that a offensive coordinator Liam Coen talked about after EKU for example is his confidence. Sometimes, he's not maybe not as sure of himself. And you saw that against EKU. He was making some some pretty bad plays to be honest with you. And he just wasn't really sure of himself. But that was something he himself corrected. They didn't pull them aside and talk to him, that was something he himself fixed at halftime and came out ready to play. So I think that one of the biggest things with him is going into such a big matchup. The biggest matchup Kentucky's played this year. How confident is he going to be in his ability? And how much is he going to trust his team, you know, to make some of those plays and giving him a little bit of slack to some of those interceptions, not all of them, but some of them. I've heard that Will Levis used to throw the ball really, really hard. He had a rocket, Leary does not as much. So you have a lot of these wide receivers who are more used to having to try to catch a rocket and they catch a normally thrown football, you know, sometimes maybe they you know, bounces off their hands, they're grabbing too tight, you know, they're grabbing too hard. And you've seen a couple plays this year where a ball has been tipped up and picked off which anytime I see a ball get tipped up and picked off I usually I'm not going to blame the quarterback for that, you know, because there's not a whole lot they can do once the balls in the air there. So I don't think all of his interceptions have been his fault necessarily feel like a broken record. I said that about Levis as well for the opposite reason that actually but um, I think that the biggest thing for him is going to be his confidence and how well he trusts in his team to make plays.”

What are your thoughts on Kentucky’s veteran wide receiver room and the threat they could pose to a young UF seconday?

Parke: “I think Tayvion [Robinson], Dane [Key] and then Barion [Brown]. Dane and barion, a little bit more similar but all three have a different thing they really bring to the table.  Tayvion is a guy who's a veteran, transferred here from Virginia Tech. I believe he's a fifth year now and he brings that veteran leadership, [and] that stay calm mentality you know, don't get too worked up very solid, bring the ball down hold on to it kind of guy. He's going to make maybe not always a highlight necessarily, but he's going to make some great catches and he's going to be very very reliable. You saw that against EKU I think he had two of the passing touchdowns himself out of the four. Dane Key was a true freshman last year. He had that massive play at Florida, like you mentioned, and you know, he's another guy who you can almost 99% of time say you can trust him that if he gets his hands on the ball, he's coming down with it, which is really really important, especially for such a young guy. He's got a promising future ahead of him and he's really good at it. And then you look at Barion Brown, same age, was a true freshman last year him and Dane Key are really, really close. My assistant Samantha actually wrote a lovely feature about it for our football preview about the brotherhood that they have. They both have matching necklaces they have for each other and it's pretty cool. They get along super great. Barion’s a guy though, I mean, you saw it last year in the first game against Miami (Ohio), he got the ball on a, I want to say was a kickoff and he returned at getting up to like 20 plus miles an hour on his return and he's speedy he's a guy that will turn a five yard pass into a 12 yard pass and you'll blink and you miss it. Like how did he even get there? You know what I mean? So sometimes last year, he had a little bit of trouble with some drops you know, maybe he has to work on his hands a little bit but if he gets a hold of that ball, he's gonna run with it and that's when that's when he starts creating some real problems for opposing defenses but the trick is each one of those you can plan for now planning for all three of those at the same time. It's a little bit harder to do you know you can try to do everything you can to make sure all right we got two guys on Barion we got these guy watching Dane well now what do we do about Tayvion.  Alright, well, let's move this guy over to Tayvion well now Barion is wide open. So it's very very tough to guard all three of those at the same time. They're not always on the field at the same time, but when they are you know, you've got two guys who you can almost guarantee you're gonna bring it down or one guy who is just going to get way more yardage than he has any business getting off of a standard catch. So I think that you know the character those guys have no special skills those guys have make it really really tough and make Kentucky a team that you know, maybe doesn't always look great on offense but when it does look great can really unleash some explosive plays.”

What are your thoughts on the Wildcats explosive running game led by veteran Ray Davis?

Parke: “Ray Davis is by far the star. Vanderbilt running back last year just absolutely torched Kentucky in the Commodores first went over the Wildcats in a decade. Then they went on to beat Florida after that. So I guess we're kind of in the same boat last year, but we both saw what Ray Davis can do and now he's in blue and white and he's been fantastic this year. He's a guy who is going to get downhill yardage. Even more than you know, you'd expect him to sometimes and he's not in an easy situation either. I mean inheriting a program where he joins after Chris Rodriguez Jr. who is the all-time leading program rusher for Kentucky who in turn joined after Benny Snell helped lead Kentucky to a Citrus Bowl back in 2018, I believe so, he comes here on the back of two really, really phenomenal running backs. And he's already been doing really, really good and Wildcat fans love Ray Davis. I remember it was like a little mini party when he announced he was coming here even though a lot of people kind of figured he probably would you know it was kind of rumored for a while but when he actually committed to Kentucky it was a big deal for a lot of people getting a guy of that caliber, especially knowing you're losing Rodriguez was massive. But another thing I think Kentucky has you know, Kentucky has a lot of Ray Davis and the other guys, I don't want to diss those other guys. But you'll see when you look at a box score, Kentucky a lot of times have like six different running backs they’re using in a game and each one of those other ones will have like one or two carries a piece but they'll get like six or seven yards. And you know, that's that's really important. It's kind of like that defensive mentality. You know, we don't always care who's doing it as long as somebody does it. You know that next man up mentality is also existing in the running back room. They have a new running back coach this year. I wrote a little piece about that when he first joined because they got him and they also got a new special teams coordinator. So far the running back rooms looked really really strong, especially Ray Davis, who you know, coming in with big shoes to fill has already done a fantastic job filling those shoes.”

What could be the key difference that could decide this game?

Parke: “I touched on a little bit earlier with Leary, but the big storyline is Kentucky teams had this year is the offense just not clicking a lot of the time or really, really struggling. A lot of times you see them come out really really flat. And I think a team like Florida you know maybe you can get away with that against Akron maybe you can get away with that against Eastern Kentucky but I think a team like Florida is really going to punish you if you come out flat a team like Florida is one that you don't want to get in a hole against because especially once you get into these good SEC teams getting in a hole can be that can be all it takes you know you saw two years ago against Tennessee was an offensive shootout for Kentucky and what ended up being the actual difference in a 48 to 45 final was Kentucky's defense gave up a field goal right before halftime. So you look at something like that. And that's just a random example I pulled out of a hat but you know in the SEC when you get in these really really strong teams like Florida is this year. Any mistake can cost you and getting behind even by three can be the difference maker. So I think that a big difference or a big point of emphasis for Kentucky will be coming out and punching the Gators in the mouth early because if you let Florida get hot and you struggle a little bit and you don't really get going until the second half. You might already be in too big of a hole to come back from. You talked about a young Florida defense but you look at the numbers and it's it's held pretty sturdy. It held Tennessee to 16 you know the worst it did was 24 against Utah I think but those are strong numbers mean Kentucky has a team that's averaging around like 30 points a game but also like I said you know they haven't played a ton of people yet either. So I imagine that's one that'll go down when you get into Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, who they play this year so brutal schedule for Kentucky. But yeah, I mean, my big point of emphasis will be how well does that offense come out and then I would also say how well does Florida attack UK secondary, you know, once you get beyond some of those linebackers, you know, a lot of people were pretty surprised when Kentucky corner Carrington Valentine announced he was going to the draft last year. He did end up getting drafted to his credit, but he was a guy that a lot of people expected to come back for one more year. And Kentucky did get a cornerback. That was [JQ] Hardaway from Cincinnati. He's very solid, but at the same time, Kentucky's real strength I think lies in the linebackers. So once you get beyond that, you might be worrying a little bit. It doesn't matter if you get three or four, three stops in a row, if you give up a 20 yard play on the fourth down so explosiveness on the offense, and stability on the defense will be the two big points of emphasis for me.”

Finally, how do you see this game playing out? Who wins it and what do you think the final score will be?

Parke: “I knew this was coming but somehow still not ready for it. In the preseason, I know I talked to you and you said you see Florida coming out on top. I said I see Kentucky coming out on top. But looking at what we've seen so far. I would not be surprised if Florida handed Kentucky its first loss just because the Florida defense so far has proved to be pretty sturdy. And the Kentucky offense has not. Now I could definitely see a scenario in which Kentucky puts it together finally and comes out firing on all cylinders and wins the game but I don't see any scenario in which it's not a one or two score game either way. But I think that Kentucky will probably get itself in a hole a little bit early. Maybe a few field goals. I could see the defense holding strong. The defense is usually is pretty sturdy on goal line scenarios. But three points are sometimes all it takes.”

Florida: 28

Kentucky: 21

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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