Previews 2015: Kentucky Wildcats

Nov 15, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops during the first half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Wildcats head coach during the first half against the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Previews 2015: Kentucky Wildcats

Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (FL, LT, LG, C, RG, QB)

Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (NT, LILB, RILB, RCB, LCB, FS)

Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Projected Overall Record: 4-8 (UF, UGA, USC, UM, AU, MSU, UT, UL)

Projected Record: 1-7 (UF, UGA, USC, UM, AU, MSU, UT)

Projected Record: 1-5 (UF, UGA, USC, UM, UT)

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Fr

Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Av

Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Fr

Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Ex

Kentucky is on pace to possibly be one of the most improved teams in the SEC – but its record may not reflect that. The Wildcats are still relatively far behind many of its SEC East peers in terms of overall talent. And there are still questions as to the direction Mark Stoops has the Wildcats traveling: Can Kentucky compete in the SEC running an Air Raid offense and lacking in defensive athleticism? History would say no, but Stoops is certainly trying to find out.

OFFENSE

Kentucky’s offense draws heavily from the Air Raid passing spread attack favored by Mike Leach and former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme, which is to say the Wildcats want to use speed and deception to overcome the obvious talent deficiency. But Kentucky might do well to pour more resources into its running game, as the Wildcats have a nice stable of backs in 2015. A veteran offensive line and a talented returning starter at quarterback make this three- and four-wide attack fairly dangerous.

QUARTERBACKS

came out of virtually nowhere to become one of the most surprisingly effective SEC quarterbacks in 2014. Towles, who stands 6’5” and weighs 240 pounds, moves well for his size and didn’t let himself become overwhelmed by opposing defenses. But he also threw just 14 touchdowns for the season, and he’ll need to produce at a higher level for Kentucky to advance beyond three or four wins. Backups Reese Phillips and Drew Barker both had good resumes coming out of high school, but Barker hasn’t taken snaps in a game yet and Phillips attempted only 9 passes in 2014. Barker is expected to overtake Phillips for the backup job. But an injury to Towles would likely be a season-killer either way. After so much uncertainty at the QB position in Stoops’ first year in Lexington, Towles was a revelation in 2014. He could elevate himself into the upper echelon of SEC quarterbacks with a solid season.

RUNNING BACKS

Despite the running game not being a true focus for Stoops, his Wildcats have nonetheless managed to put together a nice stable of backs. Three of the team’s four leading rushers returns, headlined by Stanley “Boom” Williams, who runs bigger than his size would suggest. Williams averaged 6.6 yards per carry in 2014 and is also a weapon in the passing game. was the team’s leading rusher in 2013 and is another dual-purpose threat, and he seems to have the knack for making a big play in clutch situations. Mikel Horton fills the role of bull in a china shop, weighing in at 235 pounds and built like a manhole cover. Signee Sihiem King could find his way into a role with a good fall camp. Kentucky doesn’t use a full-time fullback, but Will Thomas Collins is available for spot duty and situational work.

WIDE RECEIVERS

This group is long on potential but short on experience. The exception to that description is Ryan Timmons, who led the team in receptions and receiving yardage in 2014 as a sophomore. The rest of the top group is made up of underclassmen. Blake Bone and Garrett Johnson led the competition coming out of spring, and Bone gives the Wildcats a tall leaper (6’5”) who can match up with smaller corners and safeties. Jeff Badet, the physical Dorian Baker and talented redshirt freshman Thaddeus Snodgrass form the second line. Snodgrass in particular has turned heads and could be a key contributor early in the 2015 season. Joey Herrick and T.V. Williams provide depth. Tight end could be a major question mark, though, as a true freshman, C.J. Conrad, led the competition coming out of the spring. Depth is thin behind him, with Tanner Fink the only real possibility. Conrad has a bright future but he’ll need to pick things up quickly once the season starts.

OFFENSIVE LINE

This could be not just the strength of the Kentucky offense, but one of the best lines in the conference if all the stars align. From guard to guard, few teams can match the combination of Jon Toth at center and cohorts Zach West and Ramsey Meyers on either side. Jordan Swindle will move from right tackle to left tackle, leaving the Wildcats to replace just one starter, and likely do it with last year’s swing tackle, Kyle Meadows. The question for Kentucky has always been whether the line can buck up and help the team run the ball in situations where the defense knows a run is coming, and this year, that scenario just might be the case. Depth is in good shape from a quality perspective, with Zach Myers and Nick Haynes inside, and stud recruit George Asofo-Adjei at tackle. But numbers are thin, particularly on the outside. Jarrett LaRubbio and signees are the only other option at tackle, while Jervontius Stallings adds depth at center and guard. If Kentucky can stay healthy, the Wildcats will be strong here.

DEFENSE

The Wildcats will run a 3-4 set that is a hybrid of the systems in use at Georgia and Alabama. While the secondary is in good shape, Kentucky has long struggled with softness in its front seven and that doesn’t appear to be changing in 2015. It doesn’t help that the Wildcats lost two legitimate playmakers at defensive end, but the larger concern here is a linebacker corps that has been a weak spot for decades and can’t seem to get over the hump. If 2015 turns out to be more of the same, Kentucky will struggle to win close games.

DEFENSIVE LINE

In the middle, Kentucky has , who will likely be in the top half of next year’s NFL Draft. This, of course, begs the question of how the UK line looked so pedestrian at times in 2014, when Kentucky still had Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, but what’s important for this year is that the Wildcats find two defensive ends to help relieve the pressure on Lewis to make every play. Complicating matters for Lewis is the fact that he’s a traditional 3-4 nosetackle in an era when that particular position is being devalued. Kentucky plans to start seniors Cory Johnson and Farrington Huguenin on either side of Lewis. Johnson, a 300-pounder, can easily play tackle in a four-man front and should be a good weakside end. Backing up Lewis is another pure nosetackle, sophomore . Kentucky celebrated loudly when it stole Elam away from Nick Saban, but Elam’s freshman season was sort of ho-hum. Outside, Regie Meant and Adrian Middleton led the battle to back up Johnson and Huguenin coming out of the spring. Both are in the 300-pound range, meaning Kentucky is doubling down on pure size on the defensive line. When Kentucky must go smaller, Jabari Johnson and Zane Williams are the most likely candidates to see playing time. Signee Kengera Daniel has a chance to get in the mix at rush end.

LINEBACKERS

This unit will tell the tale of Kentucky’s defensive success in 2015. There is plenty of experience here; Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson both return to the two inside linebacker positions, but Henderson lost his job in the spring to Ryan Flannigan. The fact such a switch happened doesn’t bode well for Kentucky; both players are seniors and there was no clear move ahead by Flannigan. At outside linebacker, there’s a depth issue. Jason Hatcher will get what amounts to the Jack linebacker assignment, and Kentucky thinks he can be the next great pass rusher. But the rest of the unit is made up of newcomers. Kobie Walker and Denzil Ware are redshirt freshmen, while Alvonte Bell is a JUCO transfer and Kengera Daniel a true freshman, meaning none of the candidates for playing time other than Hatcher have any game experience at this level. Depth inside will basically consist of who loses the Henderson-Flannigan battle in camp. Dorian Hendrix and Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, if he can get a hardship waiver through, would add depth.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

There is a lot of experience here, but not a lot of game-changing ability. The exception to the rule is free safety , who garnered all-SEC attention in the preseason and is a talented centerfielder in the UK defense. The new starter at strong safety will most likely be Blake McClain, although Marcus McWilson could take the job. The question – and it’s a scary one, from the perspective of Kentucky’s coaches – is whether incumbent cornerbacks Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn can become playmakers. Neither were impressive in 2014 and both had spring practices that could well be described as “soft.” Kendall Randolph and J.D. Harmon are waiting in the wings in the event either player falters. Darius West will provide depth behind Stamps. Jaleel Hytchye and signee Derrick Baity are two other possibilities to contribute. Expect the starting lineup to change several times until the coaches get the mix they want.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There are no worries here. Punter Landon Foster and placekicker Austin MacGinnis are both weapons, MacGinnis, in particular, could be the league’s best at his position. Kentucky is in good shape in the return game, with Boom Williams leading a host of candidates for the job. Ryan Timmons and Garrett Johnson should battle for the punt return job. The real question is whether the Wildcats will have enough elite athletes to properly form coverage units.

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