LEXINGTON, Ky. — After being suspended for the first two games, Florida safety Brad Stewart made his presence felt immediately in his return Saturday night at Kroger Field.
Stewart recovered a fumble on Kentucky’s first defensive series to bail out No. 9 UF, which eventually won 29-21.
Stewart started seven games for UF last season before missing the Gators’ first two this year for undisclosed reasons. His big play came after Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith fumbled the snap, which Stewart fell on at the Wildcats 31. That turnover atoned for UF’s first mistake — Feleipe Franks’ forced pass into the end zone — and led to the Gators’ first score (a 15-yard touchdown pass from Franks to Freddie Swain).
Stewart’s presence was even more important considering the Gators’ thinning secondary.
UF, as expected, was without standout cornerback CJ Henderson (ankle). Henderson earned the Gators’ prestigious No. 1 jersey in the offseason and has been projected as a first-round pick. In Henderson’s absence, Trey Dean started opposite Marco Wilson.
UF was also without Amari Burney, who missed his second consecutive game with an undisclosed injury. The Calvary Christian product is one of the most versatile players on the defense and is listed on the depth chart at both linebacker and star nickelback.
With both players out, UF chose to add another outside linebacker to its starting lineup instead of its usual star nickelback. The Gators were already thin in the secondary with the offseason departures of John Huggins, Brian Edwards and their top 2019 recruit, Chris Steele.
Stewart’s night wasn’t all positive; he was in coverage when Kentucky tight end Keaton Upshaw caught a touchdown with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
One of the biggest signs of Kentucky’s recent rise sits just across from Gate 12 at Kroger Field, opposite a giant picture of former Wildcats star Josh Allen.
The Joe Craft Football Training Facility is Kentucky’s state-of-the-art football-only complex — the kind of palace UF, USF and Florida State are trying to build. The Gators even sent a contingent to tour it as inspiration for the $65 million, 130,000-square-foot complex they hope to open by late 2021.
Coach Dan Mullen calls Kentucky’s complex “an incredible football facility” that has given the Wildcats a recruiting edge, and it’s easy to see why, even from the outside. The lobby shows off Kentucky’s various uniform combination and accolades, including the Citrus Bowl trophy it earned in January by beating Penn State.
As important, it’s incredibly efficient to maximize limited time. Players walk out of the facility and directly to the practice field, which is adjacent to the stadium. On Saturday, fans lined the path from the complex to the field to give players a tunnel of cheers to jog through on their way to the stadium.
It’s easy to see why the Gators want a facility like that. It’s more difficult to figure out why traditional SEC East bottom dweller Kentucky has one while UF has been trying to build one for years.
Franks got off to a rough start with two first-half turnovers, but his teammates didn’t help him much. He rushed for a pair of first-half touchdowns that were called back because of holding penalties. He celebrated the second one by blowing kisses to the crowd.
Evan McPherson has only missed three field goals in his UF career. Two of them were against Kentucky — a 36-yarder (that looked as if it might have been good) last year and a 27-yarder late in the second quarter Saturday.
Defensive lineman Luke Ancrum returned after being suspended for last week’s rout of Tennessee-Martin.