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How Kentucky football and No. 22 Florida match up — with a game prediction

How the Kentucky Wildcats (4-0, 1-0 SEC) and the No. 22 Florida Gators (3-1, 1-0 SEC) match up at each position — with a game prediction:

Quarterbacks

Kentucky’s Devin Leary (1,060 passing yards, 59.34 completion percentage, nine touchdowns vs. five interceptions) has already matched his picks thrown output for the entire 2021 season — when the ex-North Carolina State star threw for 35 TDs vs. only five interceptions. Florida is the SEC leader in pass defense (allowing 162.8 yards a game) and total defense (244.8). UK could really use a “2021” performance from the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Leary.

Florida’s Graham Mertz (976 passing yards, 77.98 completion percentage, four TDs, one pick) visited UK last winter as a transfer portal QB after leaving Wisconsin. Subsequently, Kentucky instead chose to pursue Leary — so one surmises Mertz will have considerable motivation Saturday. After going 31-of-44 passing in Florida’s 24-11 loss at Utah in the season opener, the 6-3, 215-pound redshirt junior has completed a combined 53 of 64 throws over the past three games.

Advantage: Kentucky.

For Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary (13), Saturday’s game with No. 22 Florida and Gators QB Graham Mertz is a head-to-head matchup with the other transfer-portal quarterback UK considered in the past offseason. Leary transferred to Kentucky from North Carolina State, while Mertz exited Wisconsin for Florida.
For Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary (13), Saturday’s game with No. 22 Florida and Gators QB Graham Mertz is a head-to-head matchup with the other transfer-portal quarterback UK considered in the past offseason. Leary transferred to Kentucky from North Carolina State, while Mertz exited Wisconsin for Florida.

Running backs

Kentucky’s Ray Davis leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns (five); is second in scoring (42 points); fourth in rushing yards (314); and ninth in all-purpose yards (112.75 a game). Last season, while playing for Vanderbilt, the 5-10, 216-pound San Francisco product ran for 122 yards on 30 carries vs. Florida as the Commodores upset the Gators 31-24. Senior JuTahn McClain carried six times for 64 yards and a 36-yard TD in UK’s 45-28 win at Vanderbilt last week.

Florida’s Trevor Etienne (329 yards rushing, two touchdowns, 6.7 yards per carry this season) was the hero of the Gators’ 29-16 upset of No. 11 Tennessee two weeks ago, running 23 times for 172 yards and a touchdown. Last season, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound sophomore from Jennings, Louisiana, ran well against UK, carrying nine times for 46 yards and a TD. A 5-11, 215-pound junior from New Orleans, Montrell Johnson (211 yards, 4.6 yards per carry) is fourth in the SEC in rushing touchdowns with three.

Advantage: Even.

Florida running back Trevor Etienne (7) carried the football 23 times for 172 yards in the Gators’ 29-16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee.
Florida running back Trevor Etienne (7) carried the football 23 times for 172 yards in the Gators’ 29-16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee.

Wide receivers

After a rough go two weeks ago vs. Akron, UK sophomores Barion Brown and Dane Key each bounced back last week at Vanderbilt. Playing in his hometown, the 6-1, 174-pound Brown caught four passes for a team-high 105 yards. Key, the 6-3, 195-pound Frederick Douglass product, had four receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Super-senior slot receiver Tayvion Robinson leads the Cats in receptions (16), receiving yards (283) and receiving TDs (three).

In Florida’s 22-7 slog past Charlotte last week, Gators star wideout Ricky Pearsall (27 catches, 357 receiving yards, one TD) made a spectacular one-handed catch that was the talk of college football. Dynamic true freshman Eugene Wilson (12 catches, 104 yards) had been an early-season breakout player but missed the win over Charlotte due to a bruised clavicle bone suffered vs. Tennessee. His status for this week is unclear.

Advantage: Kentucky.

Tight ends

Kentucky super-senior Brenden Bates (two catches, 46 yards this season) had a 16-yard reception in last week’s victory over Vandy. It was the game’s only catch by a UK TE. Josh Kattus (two catches, 24 yards, one touchdown) sat out last week due to injury. If the hard-nosed sophomore returns this week, it figures to boost Kentucky’s run blocking.

After moving ahead of veteran Jonathan Odom (eight catches, 72 yards this season) on the Gators’ depth chart, Florida redshirt freshman Arlis Boardingham (four catches, 44 yards, 1 TD) caught two passes for 31 yards in the win over Charlotte. His 6-yard TD reception made him the only Gator to cross the goal line vs. the 49ers.

Advantage: Florida.

Offensive line

In the win at Vandy, Kentucky flipped the positions of Eli Cox and Jager Burton. Cox moved from right guard to center. “We didn’t have any snap issues, which was nice,” UK coach Mark Stoops said of Cox’s performance. “He had, maybe one missed assignment.” Burton moved from center to right guard. “Jager needs to get some reps (at guard),” Stoops said. It would be huge for UK if super-senior left guard Kenneth Horsey, out with a leg injury since the opener vs. Ball State, could return this week.

Florida right guard Micah Mazzccua, a 6-5, 325-pound junior, will return this week. The transfer from Baylor missed last week’s game vs. Charlotte due to suspension for his role in an on-field altercation vs. Tennessee two weeks ago. Gators coach Billy Napier said Monday the status of veteran center Kingsley Eguakun is “to be determined.” The 6-3, 300-pound redshirt junior has missed three of the first four games due to a leg injury. “I think that he’s made progress,” Napier said.

Advantage: Florida.

A super-senior, Kentucky offensive guard Kenneth Horsey (68) has not played since suffering a leg injury in UK’s 44-14 win over Ball State in the 2023 season opener.
A super-senior, Kentucky offensive guard Kenneth Horsey (68) has not played since suffering a leg injury in UK’s 44-14 win over Ball State in the 2023 season opener.

Defensive line

Kentucky senior end Octavious Oxendine (eight tackles, two QB hurries for the season) set a college career record at Vanderbilt with six tackles, four solo. In last season’s 26-16 win at Florida, the 6-1, 276-pound North Hardin product made four stops. The presence of 6-6, 340-pound Detroit product Deone Walker (12 tackles, three QB hurries, 1.5 sacks) figures to be central to UK’s attempts to negate Florida’s power-running attack.

Florida rush end Princely Umanmielen, a 6-5, 250-pound junior from Manor, Texas, leads the Gators in QB hurries (six) and sacks (two), and is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (three). Redshirt freshman tackle Caleb Banks, a 6-6, 320-pound transfer from Louisville, has a sack, a QB hurry and 1.5 TFL. A 6-6, 360-pound junior, nose guard Cam Jackson (13 tackles, a pass breakup) figures to be a major challenge for Kentucky’s interior offensive line — which has struggled.

Advantage: Even.

Linebackers

Kentucky OLB J.J. Weaver has a history of impactful play against Florida. Two seasons ago, the Moore High School product made an interception that set up a short-field touchdown in UK’s 20-13 victory over the Gators. Last year, the 6-5, 244-pound redshirt senior had a team-high nine tackles in the Cats’ win in Gainesville. Junior WLB Trevin Wallace is fourth in the SEC in sacks (3.5) and tied for 13th in tackles. (25).

Florida sophomore WLB Shemar James leads the Gators in tackles (27) and is tied for the team lead in TFL (three). The 6-1, 230-pound sophomore made seven stops vs. UK last season. Redshirt sophomore MLB Scooby Williams has 20 tackles, three TFL, a sack, two QB hurries and a forced fumble so far this season.

Advantage: Florida.

Kentucky linebacker J.J. Weaver (13) set up a short-field touchdown for the Wildcats with an interception in UK’s 20-13 victory over Florida in 2021.
Kentucky linebacker J.J. Weaver (13) set up a short-field touchdown for the Wildcats with an interception in UK’s 20-13 victory over Florida in 2021.

Defensive backs

Kentucky sophomore CB Maxwell Hairston was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week, Jim Thorpe National Defensive Back of the Week and Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his stat-stuffing performance at Vanderbilt. The 6-1, 181-pound sophomore from West Bloomfield, Mich., made four tackles, broke up three passes and picked off two throws — each of which he returned for touchdowns.

Florida junior right CB Jason Marshall is getting first-round buzz for the 2024 NFL draft by some analysts. The 6-1, 200-pound Miami product broke up eight passes in 2022. Sophomore Devin Moore, the backup left CB, has Florida’s only interception this season.

Advantage: Kentucky.

Kentucky cornerback Maxwell Hairston (31) scored two touchdowns on interception returns in UK’s 45-28 win at Vanderbilt last week.
Kentucky cornerback Maxwell Hairston (31) scored two touchdowns on interception returns in UK’s 45-28 win at Vanderbilt last week.

Special teams

Kentucky place-kicker Alex Raynor is perfect as a Wildcat — 4-of-4 on field-goal tries (with a long of 46 yards) and 20-of-20 on extra points. Punter Wilson Berry is averaging 44.9 yards a kick but has pinned foes inside the 20-yard line on only three of 12 punts. With the season-ending injury to long-snapper Ronald Gaines, true freshman Walker Himebauch is now handling the snapping for both punts and field goals. Barion Brown leads the SEC in kickoff return average (33.2 yards a return) and is second in punt return average (23.5).

Florida sophomore place-kicker Trey Smack has supplanted last season’s kicker, Adam Mihalek, by going 6-of-6 on field goals with a long of 54 yards. The product of Saverna Park, Maryland, is the reigning SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after he went 5-of-5 on field goals in Florida’s win over Charlotte. Australian punter Jeremy Crawshaw is averaging 43.6 yards a kick and has pinned opponents inside their 20 on three of 10 kicks. Punt returner Ricky Pearsall is averaging 7.3 yards on six tries.

Advantage: Kentucky.

Kentucky place-kicker Alex Raynor (16), a transfer from Georgia Southern, is 4-of-4 on field-goal tries as a Wildcat.
Kentucky place-kicker Alex Raynor (16), a transfer from Georgia Southern, is 4-of-4 on field-goal tries as a Wildcat.

Prediction

Kentucky 23, Florida 21.

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