Unfortunately, there is one glaring exception - kickoff return defense. While it has yet to make an impact on the outcome of the game, the inability to consistently limit the yards on kickoff returns has become an area of concern. Allowing over 27 yards per return, the undefeated Cardinals rank 114th in the NCAA in kickoff return defense.
"The kickoff return, we are going to address it because what's happening right now is the kicker is doing a great job of placing the ball," U of L head coach Charlie Strong said on Monday. "It's unbelievable how well he's placing the ball, but we're not keeping the ball inside and in front of us. Guys are just running down the field and they aren't seeing where the return is coming from."
Against Kentucky, the coverage unit allowed two sizable returns. Wildcat returner Javess Blue scampered for a 43 yard return in the first quarter and then had a 40 yard return in the third quarter.
The kickoff unit includes a number of starters, including receiver Robert Clark, who serves as the safety on kickoff returns. The problem? Chalk it up to discipline and understanding assignments.
"Teams have to show you their return," Strong continued. "If you just follow one guy, he's going to take you were the return is going. Guys are just going and trying to beat blocks, but then they get pinned. The ball hits the lane and then they get to our safety right away. Robert Clark is our safety and he had to make two tackles on Saturday."
The answer seems simple - proper spacing.
"It's all about addressing where we need to be placed," Strong explained. "We're not spacing on the field. We kick the ball in the left corner and we had like eight guys inside from the hash and out of bounds and you have no chance. There were three guys there and here comes their return and they had everyone else pinned and they get the long return. It's all about keeping the ball inside and in front."
Following a big return, Strong seeks out those that missed their assignments.
"They can't avoid me because I see it happen," he said. "Guys get blocked and they are slowing down because they see the ball is kicked and they're not running. Just run, you'll get down the field. Don't worry about who's coming to block you - out run the blocker."
Known as a defensive coach, Strong expressed disappointment in what he views as the first play of defense following a score or to open a half.
"It's defense, too. That's why I get pissed because it's the first play of the defense. I said, 'ok the ball is on the 45, go defend 55 yards. Don't look around, it's all defensive players, so don't get mad.'"
Giving the opponent a short field to work didn't lead to a score at Kentucky, but it makes the defense's job much more difficult. Senior linebacker Preston Brown has approached Strong about adding more starters to the unit, including himself.
"We hate seeing guys return kickoffs on us, especially since it's the first play of defense like coach says," Brown said. "I asked coach if we could get the starters out there a little. Maybe I'll get out there and try to help a little bit and I'll try my best. People are starting drives at the 30 or 40 yard line, which is unacceptable."
The Cardinals kickoff defense will be challenged again on Saturday when FIU visits Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. The Panthers have struggled mightily through the early stages of the 2013 season, but kickoff returns is one area where they've had success, ranking 37th in the country.
Kickoff between the U of L and FIU is scheduled for noon. The game is sold out.