Ahead of No. 8 Auburn and No. 23 Kentucky's showdown this Saturday, The Auburn Plainsman reached out to Kentucky Kernel sports editor Braden Ramsey for a Q&A previewing the season opener. Here’s what he had to say about the Wildcats.
Q: What can Auburn fans expect out of Terry Wilson? How good is he? Can he handle Auburn’s defense?
A: In the roughly seven quarters Wilson suited up last season, he looked calm, collected and confident. Throughout the 2018 run, you could see moments where he was hesitant on where to throw or confused by defenses, which led to misses on some throws that should be automatic. He was also fairly reliant on yards after catch for chunk plays. But in his limited 2019 action, he showed improvement in all those areas. He was poised in the pocket, read the defense, knew where to go with the ball and confidently pushed it down the field. He was noticeably improved.
Of course, these things also came against MAC competition, not a perennial SEC top dog. And Wilson is coming off injury, specifically a torn patellar tendon. This being his first game back, I expect Kentucky’s first few drives to primarily consist of runs and short passes — think slants, curls and screens — to help him get into the swing of things. A play-action pass and read option or QB draw should also be in the cards so Wilson can see if his knee will hold up when he’s on the move. He’ll need the confidence to bounce around the pocket and scramble when necessary; if he’s unsure and unable to show that mobility, Auburn will be able to stack the box and bring seven or eight defenders to take away Kentucky’s powerful run game. The Cats will not have a good shot at winning if that happens.
It will take the first 10-20 minutes of game time for Wilson to knock off the rust that comes with not suiting up in over a calendar year, but the Cats should be able to run a typical offense once he gets settled. I don’t expect him to try and force anything like you see some signal callers do following missed time. He should be able to keep his unit in reasonable down-and-distances, and effectively serve as a game manager in this first outing.
Q: What do you expect to see out of Kentucky’s defense? Can it contain Auburn’s offense?
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A: The Cats’ defense was one of the nation’s best in 2019, and returns most of the key figures who helped it rank as such. The secondary is loaded, returning some of Pro Football Focus’ top graded returning players and preseason All-SEC members while adding former LSU product Kelvin Joseph and 2018 slot corner Davonte Robinson — who missed last season due to injury – to the bunch. After allowing the fewest passing touchdowns in the country last year (9, tied with Ohio State), the backend should make life for opponent passing games’ — especially when throwing beyond ten yards — difficult.
When Bo Nix matched up with tough defenses as a freshman, he didn’t complete a high percentage of his throws, record a high number of yards per attempt or throw multiple touchdown passes (the Oregon opener the sole exception). Having an extended offseason to hone his craft and get a better grasp on the mental side of quarterbacking undoubtedly will lead to improvement in 2020, but starting against a secondary as talented and deep as Kentucky’s isn’t an ideal opening.
Nix will have more success in the short passing game, where the Cats will be forced to start someone without much experience at the inside linebacker spot next to DeAndre Square. Chris Oats, who would have been the favorite for the position and played very well last year, has been away from the team since the original offseason for undisclosed reasons, leaving Jamin Davis to step into the role. He appeared in each game of 2019, making one start and recording 13 total tackles in the last two games.
Those were not against opponents of Auburn’s caliber though. We saw Kash Daniel make a lot of tackles against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, but most came after getting beat in coverage. When Oats was on the field in his stead, the Hokies did not move down the field as easily because of his coverage ability. David hasn’t had the same opportunity to demonstrate coverage skills, but with it being more of an unknown, Nix seems primed to target running backs and tight ends matched up against him and see if he’s able to hold his own.
Kentucky’s run defense was not as strong, ranking 64th in yards per game allowed and 87th in yards per carry allowed. The defensive line lost one of its biggest impact players in Calvin Taylor Jr., but adds numerous recruits on the front, including top-10 defensive tackle Justin Rogers and top-30 at the position Josiah Hayes. Josh Paschal is also moving back to the interior, which should help improve the unit’s ability to slow the running game. The Tigers averaged 4.7 yards per carry in 2019 though, and despite them losing JarTavious Whitlow, it will be a challenge for the Cats to slow their attack.
Q: How has the COVID situation been with the team?
A: No specific number of players being absent due to COVID or COVID precautions from the football team in particular has been announced. The university releases total numbers of student- athletes and staff that have been tested and total number of positive cases with no specificity regarding sport.
That said, on Aug. 22nd , Mark Stoops said three players had tested positive in the week prior. And on Sept. 12th , he mentioned certain position grips being thin for scrimmage purposes due to injury and COVID, adding the caveat that Kentucky’s overall situation was “manageable at this point in time.” So there appear to be some limitations, but nothing of notable concern at the moment.
Q: What’s one player Auburn fans should know heading into the game?
A: Running back Asim Rose, No. 10. He’s the top returning player for Kentucky in terms of carries and yards, and in a game where the starting quarterback may not be the most comfortable, you need your primary running back to produce in a big way. Each member of the Cat backfield trio will get a good number of touches, but Rose is best suited to handle a bulk of the carries, between-the-tackle opportunities and goal line work. His number should be called frequently.
Q: Who wins the game? Score? Why?
A: I’m expecting a grind-it-out approach from both schools, leading to a ton of rushing attempts, lengthy drives and low scoring. Whichever defense can hold up best in the red zone will lead their team to victory. With Kentucky returning its major contributors from a season ago and Auburn losing five players to the NFL, the Cats should be stronger on that side of the ball in this opening week. As a result, they will do just enough to pull out a victory, setting those who have not been giving them any real attention on notice.
Kentucky – 20, Auburn – 17.
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