Kentucky football might owe Colorado’s Coach Prime an assist for one of the most important plays in the Wildcats’ win at Vanderbilt.
With UK nursing a 24-13 lead in the third quarter and Vanderbilt at midfield, linebacker D’Eryk Jackson intercepted an AJ Swann pass at the Kentucky 29-yard line. When a Vanderbilt player quickly wrapped him up, Jackson looked on the verge of going to the ground.
Simply grabbing the interception would have been a plus for a Kentucky team needing momentum, but Jackson was not satisfied with gaining possession alone. Instead, he lateraled the ball to defensive back Andru Phillips, who returned it 50 yards. A personal foul penalty against Vanderbilt added another 10 yards to the return, giving the Wildcats possession at the Vanderbilt 11-yard line.
“I had seen that play when I watched the Deion Sanders documentary,” Jackson said after Kentucky’s 45-28 win. “I saw them doing it. It just happened when I caught the pass it came in my mind to toss it back.”
Phillips deserves an assist on the play as he was urging Jackson to pitch the ball instead of going down. The pair’s instincts turned what would have been a good play into an extraordinary one.
Four plays later, Ray Davis scored on a 1-yard touchdown carry to give Kentucky the breathing room it needed on the way to what ended up a comfortable victory.
“That’s playing ball,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “That was some good awareness, though. Obviously possession is important at that point in time, but with nobody around him he had the opportunity to do that. That was a big play.”
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 23, 2023
The big play shined the spotlight on Jackson, who has been overshadowed by fellow inside linebacker Trevin Wallace over the season’s first month but has been a consistent target of praise from coaches.
“Excited about sort of how D Jack is playing,” defensive coordinator Brad White said earlier this month. “He’s playing really good football. The two of them right now are playing good football together and they’re complementing each other.”
Jackson’s stock is on the rise after the Vanderbilt win, but what of the rest of the Wildcats heading into a pivotal game against No. 22 Florida? The weekly Kentucky football stock watch takes a closer look.
Entering the season, cornerback was considered one of the biggest question marks on the roster as Kentucky had to replace both starters from 2022, but four games into the season it has transformed into a strength for the defense.
Phillips was something of a known quantity after shining as the Wildcats’ nickel back in the second half of 2022, but the emergence of fellow starter Maxwell Hairston has been key to the position’s growth. Against Vanderbilt, Hairston tied an SEC record with two interception returns for touchdowns.
“This kid has stepped up as big as I’ve seen anyone step up at this school,” Phillips said of Hairston.
More depth is needed at the position, especially since Phillips usually lines up against the slot receiver in obvious passing situations. Sophomore Jordan Robinson was the second cornerback in those situations at Vanderbilt, but he is a work in progress one year after transferring from Division II Livingstone. Cincinnati transfer JQ Hardaway is the other player in the cornerback rotation.
FALLING: Devin Leary
The soft opening to Kentucky’s 2023 schedule was supposed to provide an opportunity for Leary to shake off rust after his season-ending injury from last October while growing more comfortable playing in a pro-style offense for the first time.
There have been plenty of highlight reel-worthy throws from Leary through four games, but with Vanderbilt being his worst performance yet it is difficult to feel too confident in the offense with the competition level about to increase significantly.
Against Vanderbilt, Leary completed 15 of 29 passes for 205 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The first interception was a bad throw into double coverage. The second was a result of a jarring hit that knocked his helmet off while he was throwing.
The low point of the afternoon came on a third quarter drive when Leary dropped a snap, stumbled to the ground after being stepped on by a teammate and then sailed a pass high on third down.
“Devin wants to perform for his team,” Stoops said. “It was a rough couple series. … I still have a ton of confidence in him. He’s a guy that — you’re going to go through some tough times playing quarterback in the SEC, but he’s resilient and I don’t think he can be rattled. That’s not to say he won’t have some tough times, because he will, but he’ll bounce back.”
▪ The Southeastern Conference announced that Kentucky’s football game at Georgia on Saturday, Oct. 7, will kick off at 7 p.m. and be aired on ESPN.
No. 22 Florida at Kentucky
When: Noon Saturday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Florida 3-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 4-0 (1-0)
Series: Florida leads 53-20
Last meeting: Kentucky won 26-16 on Sept. 10, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.