Sports editor Stuart Steele spoke to Cole Parke, sports editor at the Kentucky Kernel, Kentucky’s student newspaper, about Georgia’s upcoming clash against Kentucky. The following story has been edited slightly for clarity.
Stuart Steele: What went wrong for Kentucky this season to go from a winning 10-3 season with a bowl win to 6-4 with two games remaining?
Cole Parke: The offensive. Kentucky fans expected that with a likely first-round NFL draft pick under center and one of the best running backs in program history returning, Kentucky would have an electric offense even with a weakened offensive line. It was far from that. Regardless of what you want to accuse, the point is that the offense was not good. When we talk about the most disappointing aspects of this Kentucky team, offense will always be the first thing to come up.
Steele: What do you think of Will Levis and his performance this season?
park: I think he did the best he could with the circumstances he was given. Kentucky’s offensive line wasn’t the “big blue wall” fans are used to, leading to Kentucky being one of the worst teams in the country in terms of sacks allowed. There’s also a limit to how much Levi’s can rush. None of that takes into account the bumps he’s endured this season. He broke his finger mid-game, he dislocated his shoulder mid-game and came back on the next drive, and he’s turf toed several games and only missed one game from that injury. When you have that context, it’s much easier to forgive many of his flaws and lack of urgency.
Steele: Chris Rodriguez is one of the best running backs in the SEC. What makes him so good and do you think he can last against Georgia?
park: Well, first he’s a veteran, so you know he’ll keep his cool no matter the scenario, which is always huge for a star running back. Second, he is a hard back. He’s a far cry from the type of guy who usually goes down on first contact and constantly runs through traffic and opposing defenses. He’s also experienced enough by nature to find holes that young rushers might not notice, and he’s often able to make something out of nothing. You look at Kentucky’s schedule this season, and even after being suspended for the first four games of the season, there are several games where Rodriguez Jr. is the best offensive player on the field. He is responsible for keeping the team in and sometimes even winning games where it would otherwise be hopeless.
Steele: What are the strengths of Kentucky’s defense? Who are the best players in the unit?
park: I would say a lot of it is mentality. Every defense in the country emphasizes it, but Kentucky has really embraced the ideas of bend but don’t break and next man up. Defensive coordinator Brad White should be given much credit for the culture he was able to develop with this defensive unit. You’ll regularly see the defense occasionally giving up long drives on the field before recording a hard goal-line stop or forcing a field goal. While the defense has been resilient for the most part, they have had injury woes this year, although you’ll be forgiven for not noticing when backups have been able to fill up. Jacquez Jones, a veteran linebacker who billed himself as the “quarterback of defense,” was out for most of the season, but other linebackers have stepped up to fill the role. JJ Weaver and Jordan Wright come to mind as really good defenders, as does lineman like Octavious Oxendine. It’s a gritty defense and sometimes it’s all Kentucky has to offer.
Steele: Who is one player that Georgia fans may not know and who will have a huge impact in Saturday’s game?
park: I wouldn’t say they don’t know, but Kentucky has some really good wide receivers. The offense has been struggling this year, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the British receiver space has three players with serious game-changing potential. Experienced transfer Tayvion Robinson has done well this season and true newcomers Dane Key and Barion Brown have done the rest. Key has the ability to make hard catches in clutch moments, which is crucial to the Wildcat offense, and Brown has such an impressive top speed that if he gets his hands on the ball and lets his man miss, there’s a good chance that he goes all the way.
Steele: What is your choice for the game?
park: I have to be honest, I don’t see a scenario where Kentucky wins this football game. Last year’s team went undefeated but lost 30-13 in Athens. This year’s team goes into the game with a loss to Vanderbilt, the Commodores’ first win in 26 straight SEC matches, 6-4 and is expected to lose by more than three points. My prognosis? 42-7 Bulldogs.