"You must be sound in the kicking game" - Rece Davis. As much as some of us might not like ESPN, Davis has a point. Ask Bobby Bowden, Chris Peterson, or Nick Saban how important the kicking game is and I'm sure they'll cringe. Even though plenty of games come down to last second field goals, we as fans still tend to downplay the importance of special teams. Kicking to Devin Hester pretty much lost us the game against Miami in 2004. Trent Guy, Zek Parker, and Robert Clark could completely change the momentum of the game with a big return. And Chris Philpott's struggles last season possibly changed the outcome of a couple of games. Special teams is a big part of the game and it could come into play next week.
The Cardinals will be breaking in a new kicker, punter, and possibly a new punt returner this season. Louisville has zero game experience at both kicking positions and this is probably the biggest worry for the team. Since Trent Guy graduated a few different players have tried hand at returning kicks. Adrian Bushell's kick return to start the UConn game last year was the first time we've seen someone break a really impressive return in a few years. Bushell is known as one of the fastest players on the team, but didn't get a chance to return kicks until late in the season. He didn't display great return skills as far as setting up blocks and things like that, but I'll take a guy that can flat out hit a hole and outrun people any day.
Kenny Carter has recently said that Coach Strong has backed off his declaration that he is free to use any and all players on his special teams units. The team is talented enough that he can use second and third team guys instead of starters. I'm not sure if this will be the case when it comes to return men but if it is there is still one guy that I think can be the next great returner here. His name is Charles Gaines. Gaines has what I call "total speed". He blends his quickness and speed very well and gets in and out of cuts so effortlessly. I think he would be a great punt returner and possibly a very good kick returner also. Scott Radcliff and Eli Rogers are good players but they are not dynamic athletes. Gaines could bring the "wow" factor that we have lacked over the last few years.
John Wallace will most likely be the kicker this year for UofL. The 52-yard field goal he hit in the spring game had to help calm the nerves of some fans. Even though he hasn't had game experience and he missed a short field goal in the spring game, the competition for the job should help push Wallace to perform well. Josh Appleby is my bet to handle kickoff duties and also to be the next option at kicker if Wallace falters. This will be a huge question mark until we get into the season but I don't expect it to be the major issue we saw the few years before HCCS arrived.
Ryan Johnson and Josh Appleby are battling it out at practice for the starting punter position. I wish I could say that I knew who has the best shot at winning the job but from everything I've heard it seems that both guys have issues that they need to get control of to pull ahead. It's been said that Appleby is booming punts for great yardage but is sporadic in doing so while Johnson isn't getting great distance but is fairly consistent. I personally think that whichever punter is hitting the ball the best will play. Charlie hasn't been shy about switching punters mid season and I think he has two good options this year.
Louisville blocked a handful of punts and kicks last year and I'm really looking forward to seeing how much those units will improve this year. We really went after punts in last years Governor's Cup and had great success with Senorise Perry getting a block. Coach Strong brought aggressive special teams play with him from Florida and it's paid dividends so far.
The one clear advantage Kentucky has this year is at the kicker position. Craig Mcintosh is one of the best kickers in the SEC hitting 80% of his field goals in his career. Kentucky was able to sustain a couple of last year and if they can get it to the red zone, knowing you have a reliable kicker that can at least get you three points can be big in a close game.
Freshman Landon Foster is said to have won the punter job when he stepped foot on campus. Foster was a highly rated kicker/punter coming out of high school this past season and Joker has high praise for him. I expect him to beat out Joe Mansour and Jay Wilmott for the starting nod. A true freshman punter playing in his first collegiate game in this atmosphere has to Kenny Carter licking his chops. Ryan Tydlacka faced a lot of pressure and took a few hits last year and handled it quite interestingly. How the freshman handles guys like Senorise Perry and Gerod Holliman flying at his leg as he punts could be a major factor in this game. If he handles it well and gets good distance on his punts, the field position game could favor Kentucky.
Kentucky has a few options for a return man but it will be interesting to see if they use a couple of different players or if they stick with one. Ashley Lowery is one of the more athletic players on the roster and is a good bet to get a shot at returning kicks this year. He has moved into the starting lineup so I'm not sure if Joker will be ok with putting a guy that is already replacing a starter back there to return kicks. If Lowery doesn't get the nod we might see Raymond Sanders or Demarco Robinson back deep. Both have plenty of speed and both returned a handful of kicks last season.
Kentucky was somehow worse than UofL last year when it came to returning punts. I expect to see the coaching staff attempt to ad a little bit of excitement to the position by using Demarco Robinson to return punts. Robinson is quick and has speed to burn. He's not a highlight reel guy but he definitely has the ability to take a punt back for a score. Louisville covered punts really well last year so we will have to see if Kentucky does things differently this year.
Kentucky has the edge where it matters most in big games. Converting field goals is the most important aspect of special teams. Having experience at that position can be invaluable. I don't expect for either team to have many big plays in the return game but Louisville was much more likely to give up the big kick return last year. Kentucky's coverage units fared well last year but could be a little more greenthis year. We all hope that it doesn't come down to special teams winning this game but if it does UK might just have the edge.