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Jamie Vaught: Youthful UK defense was disappointing, but brighter days are ahead

Kentucky's youthful defense took a beating Saturday but experienced reinforcements are on the way (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky’s youthful defense took a beating Saturday but experienced reinforcements are on the way (UK Athletics Photo)


As you saw it on Saturday night, Kentucky’s defense in the second half was nothing to brag about.

Facing a decent Louisiana-Lafayette club, the Wildcats — who were leading 27-7 in the third quarter — suddenly lost their comfortable margin, allowing the Ragin’ Cajuns three long rushing TDs (56-yards, 26-yards and 23-yards) along with two two-point conversions and tying the season opener at 33-all with less than four minutes remaining.

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Even though the Cats bounced back with a 40-33 victory, many observers were disappointed with UK’s defensive performance.

Like it or not, Kentucky, however, has a pretty good excuse. Ten freshman, including two first-time starters (defensive end/linebacker Denzil Ware and cornerback Chris Westry), saw action.

Of course, not having both starting linebacker Ryan Flannigan (injured shoulder) and part-time starting linebacker Jason Hatcher (suspended for the first two games) in the contest didn’t help, either.

But one shining spot on UK’s defense was senior linebacker Josh Forrest, a 6-3, 255-pounder who managed to get the job done against Louisiana.

“I thought Josh played well, but we anticipated he would,” said UK coach Mark Stoops in Monday’s press conference. “I thought he did after the game as well, and he missed a few things but he isn’t perfect and I think he is playing pretty good.”

Forrest led the team with 15 tackles, which was his sixth career double-digit tackle effort. He also had his second career sack along with a game-clinching interception as time expired.

“It was definitely a good feeling,” said Forrest of the victory. “Kind of like the South Carolina game last year (when the Wildcats had the biggest fourth-quarter comeback victory in school history).”

A third-team All-SEC standout in 2014 when he led the Cats in tackles with 110 stops and ranked third in the SEC in tackles per game, Forrest was asked about being a veteran leader during a tight game in the second half.

“Telling the young guys that if they make mistakes to keep their heads up,” said Forrest, a first-team all-state performer at Paducah Tilghman High School. “Denzil (Ware) lost an edge on one play and came to the sideline with his head down. I said, ‘It’s alright. We got this. We’re going to be OK. (The) offense is going to get it done, and we’re going to come out and make the last stop.’

“I think last year I would have argued and been frustrated, but I know that people mess up. We play better when we’re calm. When we’re arguing and are uptight and upset, we don’t play so good.”

According to Forrest, the youngsters did fine in a tough situation.

“I think they played good,” said Forrest, who already has a bachelor’s degree in community and leadership development. “We all have room for correction, but I think they came out and handled their own. They didn’t get stage-fright.”

With South Carolina running the ball well (254 rushing yards) in its 17-13 win over North Carolina last Thursday night, UK will attempt to correct its struggling run defense before facing the Gamecocks in Saturday night’s matchup on SEC Network.

“It is very important to get settled in and get things cleaned up,” said Stoops. “You certainly can’t give up big runs, that is how they won the game last week. They hit a big long run. We can’t be in a situation where we are playing 80-90 snaps on defense and 60 on offense, that is not the recipe that we need.”

If Kentucky had more Josh Forrests, the Cats sure would be a dominating team in college football.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A quick prediction: Yes, it’s hard to believe that South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier is 70 years old, but he’s still entertaining to watch or listen. As mentioned last week, the preseason yearbooks are not expecting a banner year in the Gamecock country after a disappointing 7-6 mark in 2014. USC just barely beat rival UNC in Charlotte last week. My forecast remains the same: USC over Kentucky by 7.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Like UK coach John Calipari, ex-Cat Louie Dampier will be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.

And it will be another former Wildcat — Dan Issel — who will present Dampier to the Hall of Fame. (Members of Hall of Fame Class of 2015 were asked to select a previous inductee to accompany and present them to their peers).

In case you missed my column several months ago, Issel was asked about Dampier, a two-time UK All-American who was a seven-time All-Star Game performer in the old American Basketball Association.

“Well, I might be a little bit prejudiced, (but) I think he should have been there a long time ago,” said ex-UK All-American Issel last February. “Louie is the all time leading scorer in the history of the ABA and the all-time leading three-point scorer.

“And most importantly, he is a dear friend and I was more excited when I heard Louie made it in the Hall of Fame than I was when I went in (1993).”

Issel has a favorite story about Dampier.

“One thing he didn’t believe in the ABA was assists, and I know that’s true because he never passed it to me,” smiled Issel, who is UK men’s all-time leading scorer with 2,138 points. “So I know he didn’t pass it to that many people, but for Louie, for someone who has achieved as much as Louie did in the ABA, he is the most humble guy I’ve ever met and that’s why I love him.”

Calipari also praised Dampier.

“With Louie (Dampier), the issue for Louie is he won’t get up there and he won’t say much,” said Calipari earlier this week. “He really needs to because he’s such a fan favorite. In the history of this program, there may never have been a better shooter. As far as just unassuming, humble, deference to everybody else. I want him to enjoy this night because it’s well deserved for him.”

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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