USA Today/Brian Losness

Kentucky gets early test for improved run D

Kentucky’s high hopes for an improved run defense figures to get a stout challenge out of the gates this season.

The Wildcats’ opponent in Saturday’s season opener, Louisiana Lafayette, features an impressive ground game led by junior running back Elijah McGuire. Last season, he was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection after recording 1,264 yards rushing, 468 yards receiving and scoring 16 combined touchdowns for the 9-4 Ragin’ Cajuns.

McGuire is on about every 2015 watch list for which he is eligible, including the Doak Walker, Paul Hornung, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards. Over the last two years, the 5-foot-11, 198-pounder boasts the highest yards-per-carry average (7.9) of any player in the country. During the same time period, the UK defense has ranked No. 89 and No. 94 nationally, surrendering 4.7 yards per carry and 194 yards per game.

“He’s a fantastic player,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said of McGuire. “He’s just a very dynamic player. He gets an awful lot of yards and averages almost eight yards per carry. Just a fantastic football player.

“I think they do a nice job of creating space. Their offense presents some problems.”

On Tuesday following practice at the Nutter Training Center, UK defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh offered even more praise for McGuire, comparing him to the Cats’ own explosive playmaker, Boom Williams.

UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot noted that it’s not just McGuire who impresses him while studying film on the Ragin’ Cajuns. Although ULL runs primarily out of a spread formation -- typically deemed a finesse approach -- its read-option game is powered by a physical offensive line that plays with a nasty streak. The Ragin' Cajuns go 295, 294, 316, 320 and 295 in the trenches and boast three players with a combined 78 career starts.

Being physical at the point of attack while maintaining assignments will be a big key -- not always easy in the first game of the season when juices are flowing and players are trying to make a big impression.

“We have to be able to be a firm tackling team,” Eliot said. “You get in space, you can’t be an arm-tackling team, so we’re trying to be physical and hit ‘em thick and knock them down.”

Stoops said he thinks the Cats may benefit not only from an influx of talent, but from practicing all summer against what is expected to be a potent UK offense.

“I feel really good about the amount of work we were able to get done this summer,” the UK boss said. “… It’s nice to be able to practice a little more physical and have a little bit of depth and have those practices where you can really work it and you feel like you have a good chance because you’ve got some guys who are strong enough to move some people when they have to, and defensively stop them as well.

“It was one of the reasons why I was attracted to Coach (Shannon) Dawson, because I like the physical nature that he likes to call the game and wants to be physical. It only helps the defense because you’ve got to see that every day in practice, you have to see that mentality.”

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