By J.R. Simpson
During the 2016 football season, the University of Kentucky did not employ a full-time special teams coordinator, but used a “special teams by committee” approach. As a result, U.K. was near the bottom of the national rankings in most special teams categories. They were ranked 56th overall in punt return defense and 96th in punt return offense, with similar numbers in kickoff return defense and kickoff return offense. In many key moments, U.K.’s special teams allowed huge returns or made poor decisions that resulted in loss of momentum for the Wildcats or gaining momentum for their opponents. Grant McKinniss was particularly dismal, only averaging 39.2 yards on 58 punts. The exception to the rule was Austin MacGinnis, who was the lone bright spot for the Wildcats’ special teams unit. Enter the 2016 off-season and the hiring of former EKU head coach Dean Hood.
The hiring of Dean Hood as special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach was met with a collective “meh” from the Big Blue Nation. Many folks only knew Dean Hood as the man who almost beat U.K. while he was head coach at EKU in 2015. However, for those who do not know, Hood is so much more. Coach Hood’s career goes back over 30 years to 1986, where he began as a defensive backs coach at Fairmont State University. The biggest impact on his coaching career was arguably his five year stint as defensive coordinator and special teams coach at EKU under legendary Hall of Fame coach Roy Kidd. Kidd is the 2nd all time winningest coach in FCS history. While at EKU from 1994-1998, Hood’s defenses and special teams units were among the best in the country in FCS. Hood is a northeast Ohio native, which explains his appeal to Coach Mark Stoops. Folks from that area are traditionally tough, hard nosed and hard working. That was exactly what the U.K. special teams needed. There was talent on the special teams roster, with Austin MacGinnis, Charles Walker, Garrett Johnson and J.D. Harmon, but no one to coach them properly.
Coach Hood’s impact has immediately been felt, as the special teams units have performed well this season. Through six games, the Wildcats are now averaging 42.5 yards per punt, 20.8 yards per punt return and 24.7 yards per kickoff return. In addition to improved returns, punts and kickoffs, the coverage units have improved dramatically. Against great returners such as Tyree Cleveland of Florida, Kentucky allowed on 14 yards kickoff returns. On punts, Kentucky allowed 5 yards per return. It can not be understated how many times the Wildcats’ special teams have passed the “look” test this year. With the exception of the missed field goal by Austin MacGinnis at the end of the Florida game, Hood’s unit has had very few moments to be unhappy about. I think that we can all agree that his impact is immeasurable and we can look forward to continued success on special teams with Coach Hood at the helm.