2014 Kentucky Wildcats: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 24, 2014
Mark Stoops’ first year in Lexington did not go smoothly. The decision to force the Wildcats into a no-huddle offense proved to be a bad move, and the defense couldn’t dig Stoops out of his miscalculation. Fortunately, Stoops has put the Wildcats on a better track recruiting-wise, but he’s still having to populate several positions that went unattended under Joker Phillips’ regime.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (FL, LT, LG, C, RT)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, LDE, RLB, LLB, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
Kentucky will continue to be up-tempo and spread-oriented, but a passing spread without a real running threat has never truly worked in the SEC. If Kentucky wants to succeed, it must become more balanced – to say nothing of finding a quarterback and playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Who knows? That pretty much describes it. Maxwell Smith was the leading passer on the team last year, but coming out of the spring, wasn’t even in the two-deep. The team’s second-leading passer, Jalen Whitlow, left the team. Sophomore Patrick Towles and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips were atop the depth chart coming out of spring, but heralded signee Drew Barker will have the fans chanting his name until he finally enters a game and either proves or disproves the hype. Assuming Towles or Phillips keeps Smith and Barker at bay, Kentucky will be successful only if Towles continues to develop as a passer or Phillips continues to make good decisions.
Jojo Kemp put together a good year as a freshman, ultimately leading the team in rushing, and he has good burst and top-end speed. But he lacks bulk, a common complaint among Kentucky runners. Braylon Heard is cut from similar cloth as Kemp, so either Josh Clemons or Mikel Horton will have to step up if the Wildcats are to have a power threat. Horton, one of the best running back recruits in the country this past winter, goes almost 240 pounds and gives Kentucky the hammer they lacked in 2013. Boom Williams is another Kemp-Heard clone. When Kentucky needs a fullback, Jeff Wittuhn and Darrell Warren fill the bill.
Kentucky has most of its 2013 group returning. Javess Blue is the leader of the bunch, although Ryan Timmons, Demarco Robinson, Jeff Badet and Alexander Montgomery are basically interchangeable at the other two slots. Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams are expected to add to the mix along with holdover Joey Herrick. Tight end could be a problem spot, with a pair of little-used seniors, Steven Borden and Ronnie Shields competing for the job. The receivers have a lot of potential, but only Blue has begun to realize his yet.
Four starters return, but experience only matters if the players can actually play. Kentucky got better as the 2013 season went along, particularly at tackle with Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle, but neither have the footwork to keep the conference’s best defensive ends at bay. Jon Toth is a solid center and Zach West is a good option at left guard. Right guard is a battle between three freshmen, Ramsey Meyers, Cole Mosier and Nick Haynes. Teven Eatmon-Nared is the only upperclassman reserve available, and he’s out of position as Miller’s backup at left tackle.
Kentucky won’t be nearly as solid up the middle in 2014 as it was last year, and that creates a problem. The back end of the Wildcat defense was a major disappointment relative to expectations, and without Avery Williamson, Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph plugging holes, the pressure will be squarely on the secondary to perform. Kentucky will utilize a straightforward 4-3 look, but not much is expected from this side of the ball.
Ends Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree both landed on most preseason all-SEC teams, so the outlook isn’t completely dire. But it will quickly become so if Mike Douglas and Christian Coleman can’t get things under control inside. Regie Meant and Cory Johnson will compete with Coleman, as will Melvin Lewis. Farrington Huguenin provides depth. Kentucky fans want to see an early contribution from Matt Elam, whose signature the Wildcats beat out Alabama for in the spring. Jason Hatcher will back up Smith and Dupree outside. Making the tackles’ job even harder is that both Smith and Dupree are basically pass-rush specialists, and run control comes a distant second.
The loss of Williamson in the middle might be too much to overcome. Josh Forrest, who is set to replace him, is more than a step down. Khalid Henderson looks like the next leader of the unit, and Blake McClain, who is essentially a nickel safety,also returns to his starting spot. The depth situation is spotty, with TraVaughn Paschal, Daron Blaylock and Ryan Flannigan the most likley names. Flannigan is a JUCO transfer and will need to push Forrest from day one. Miles Simpson was supposed to be in the mix, but was lost for the season. Grant Aumiller might get a look.
No unit disappointed like this one, which was a total non-factor – or worse – throughout the season. About the only certainty is that the coaches won’t hesitate to make changes this year. Nate Willis and Fred Tiller return at cornerback, but one of them will likely be pushed out by the return of J.D. Harmon from injury. Harmon is superior to both the returning starters. At safety, Ashely Lowery could be all-SEC or a total bust. He probably was the most disappointing SEC defensive back in 2013 compared to what could have been. Eric Dixon also returns, but A.J. Stamps and Glen Faulkner are pushing both players, and Stamps, a JUCO sensation in 2013, may not stay on the bench long.
Punter Landon Foster will soon be one of the best SEC punters, if he isn’t already. He has impressive leg strength and, if he can get his short-field punting to match his negative-field punting, he’ll be a true weapon. The kicker will be new, with freshman Austin MacGinnis the leading candidate to start. Kentucky seems to grow dangerous kick and punt returners like farmers grow weeds, and Javess Blue is the best of a deep crop.
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