Sold-out Kroger Field will be first SEC road test for Jones, several Gators

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports
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Florida defensive end Zachary Carter, left, and defensive back Trey Dean III make the stop on Kentucky running back Kavosiey Smoke during the 2019 game in Lexington, Ky.

Princely Umanmielen is one of 44 scholarship players for ninth-ranked Florida who’ve never been on the road in a sold-out SEC game.

Not all made the trip to Lexington for tonight’s game at No. 23 Kentucky, but Umanmeilen will be among them. After limited capacity crowds in 2020 due to COVID-19, the sophomore defensive end is looking forward to his first taste of a full stadium with opposing fans. 

“I think I like the hostility a little bit,” Umanmielen said. “I like how the fans come at us like that. I talk a little back to them. But yeah, I like the hostility.”

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The No. 9 Gators (3-1, 1-1 SEC) face plenty of it at Kroger Field, formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium, where they’ve won 16 games in a row. However, their last three trips have been decided by one score. 

Florida quarterback Emory Jones throws a pass during the second half of last year's game against Kentucky at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The Wildcats (4-0, 2-0) ended their 31-game losing streak in the series three years ago in The Swamp, but could have been victorious in five of the last seven matchups dating back to the triple-overtime loss in 2014. 

“A few years ago they upset us and we had to come back (in 2019), so obviously they feel like they can beat us,” Umanmeilen said. “I feel like they're going to come in there with a lot of confidence, so it's going to be a challenge for us."

The Gators traveled to Tampa earlier this season for the USF game, but the Bulls were outnumbered in the stands by Florida fans. For the upperclassmen on UF’s roster, this will be their first time playing in a packed away stadium since October 2019.

“You gotta be prepared to go handle it,” UF coach Dan Mullen said. “The older guys have been around. They see what it’s like for other teams to come play at our place. That’s why you want to play in this league, though. 

“You want to go in front of these environments where everywhere you go it’s a packed house, sold-out stadium. That’s part of being in the SEC that makes it fun.”

Emory Jones is coming off a career-high performance against Tennessee, becoming the first Florida quarterback with 200 yards passing (209) and 100 yards rushing (144) in a game since Tim Tebow in 2009. Unlike Umanmielen, Jones has prior playing experience in front of raucous SEC crowds, but tonight’s game will be his first career road start in conference play. 

“I’ve been there before, my sophomore year. It’s a tough environment,” Jones said of Kroger Field. “The fans show a lot of passion for their team. I mean, we just have to lock in this week. 

“We already know they are probably going to throw everything at us. We just have to just execute and play disciplined and handle that environment. That’s probably the main thing, and I feel like we’ll be good.”

UF receiver Justin Shorter is confident with Jones leading the team into Lexington, and he’s also excited about backup Anthony Richardson making his return. After missing the past two games with a hamstring injury, Mullen said Richardson is “100 percent ready to go” for the Wildcats. 

“Our team definitely looks at Emory as a huge leader. He's definitely growing and he's definitely helping our team win games. … He’s getting more and more confident as the game goes on,” Shorter said of Jones. 

“Anthony is definitely a great, great player. Every time that he touched the ball I was honestly thinking like, he’s gonna break for a 90-yard touchdown. So I think he’ll be a definite help for that game on Saturday.”

Richardson will provide another weapon for Florida’s rushing attack, which ranks No. 3 in the country at 322.5 yards per game. After racking up 283 yards against Tennessee’s fifth-ranked rushing defense, the Gators now face the nation’s No. 9 total defense in Kentucky. 

The Wildcats ranks 20th nationally at stopping the run. 

“A very good scheme,” Mullen said of their defense. “They have experience, a lot of veterans on the team. But [Mark Stoops] has done a great job of building the program with the identity. They’re going to be a big, physical defense.

“Then they have a strong running game that is complemented by play-action pass. … They have some transfers that have come in and made immediate impacts on the offensive side of the ball, receiver and quarterback.”

Transfers power Kentucky Wildcats

UK is led offensively by new starting QB Will Levis, a Penn State transfer. He’s thrown for 906 yards on the season with seven touchdowns, five interceptions and 65.3 completion rate. 

Levis is former teammates with Shorter and UF defensive tackle Antonio Valentino, both of whom transferred from Penn State. 

“I remember he could pass the ball very, very well,” Shorter said of Levis. “He could run the ball, he could put his shoulder down and run through someone, he can jump over someone, I’ve seen him do it all. But definitely for our defense, just playing the game, I think we’ll be fine if we just keep on playing hard.” 

Levis has three dynamic playmakers in receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, a Nebraska transfer, and running backs Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke. Rodriguez leads the SEC and ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards (522), while Robinson ranks first in the league in receiving yards (402). 

“They added the transfer from Nebraska, that gives them a explosive threat, down-the-field, playmaking-type guy that can catch balls down the field, and they find ways to get him the ball the other way on reverses and things like that,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Robinson. “And then the running backs run really hard, probably run as hard as any backs in the conference, from the standpoint of they'll bleed you and make a three-yard gain a five-yard gain. 

“So it's a much more difficult challenge than, say, last week. And we understand that we’re going into a place that will be excited, that’ll be a fun environment to play in. But we just gotta to stay within ourselves, and do our jobs and play to our ability and everything will take care of itself.”

Today

Who: No. 9 Florida (3-1, 1-1 SEC) vs. No. 23 Kentucky (4-0, 2-0)

When: 6 p.m. 

Where: Kroger Field, Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

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