Overview: There is much disagreement over the potential future of the Kentucky Wildcats, perhaps much of it surrounding a coaching staff that still is trying to prove itself. Mark Stoops has certainly recruited well enough to win games here, and Kentucky’s position relative to its SEC East peers in regards to talent and experience within the various position units would suggest this could be the surprise team of the division. But it’s still Kentucky. And until the Wildcats actually prove it on the field, no one is giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Projected record: 6-6 (UGA, USC, MSU, UT, OM, UL); 3-5 and 5th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 8 (SE, FL, LT, C, RG, RT, TE, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 8 (NT, BLB, MLB, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Fr DL: Pr
RB: Av LB: Vg
WR: Vg DB: Ex
OL: Vg ST: Vg
Offensive breakdown: An injury to Drew Barker forced Stephen Johnson into action at quarterback, and the results were decidedly mixed. By year’s end, Johnson was keeping his mistakes to a minimum, but he was not the dynamic playmaker Kentucky hoped to find. He has dual-threat capabilities but was kept on a tight leash for most of the season, and it will be interesting to see if the coaches loosen that grip somewhat. Barker is still fighting to get back to the field, and if he can’t make it, a talented redshirt freshman, Gunnar Hoak, will be Johnson’s backup. If Barker is healthy, Johnson needs to make more plays to keep his job in the long run.
Even though the Wildcats lost JoJo Kemp and Stanley Williams at the running back position, the presence of Benny Snell Jr. and Sihiem King make the losses a bit easier to take. Snell, who rushed for 1,091 yards last year, will fill the bruiser role, while King will be the scatback. Between them and a deep, talented receiver corps that includes depth at the tight end position, Kentucky is not hurting for offensive skill talent. The addition of JaVonte Richardson and Lynn Bowden will only add to that impressive list of players, but Bowden is still in NCAA limbo regarding his high school transcripts.
Kentucky only has to replace one offensive lineman, but it’s a big loss: center Jon Toth was the anchor of this group, and will likely necessitate Bunchy Stallings moving to the spot from right guard. For the first time in perhaps forever, Kentucky expects to have two full platoons of quality offensive linemen to pick from. If the hole left by Toth’s departure can be filled, Kentucky could be special on offense.
Defensive/ST breakdown: You don’t have to look long to find the problems on defense. Kentucky was 110th in rushing defense in 2016, mostly due to a defensive line that couldn’t stop anyone. On top of that, only one starter is back, but that might not be a bad thing given 2016’s results. Adrian Middleton figures to start at weakside end in the Cats’ version of a 3-4 over/under. What’s going to make this group go is whether Kentucky can finally get Matt Elam to live up to the hype at nosetackle. Elam finished the spring behind fellow senior Naquez Pringle, which can’t be a good sign.
While the defensive line has its issues, the back seven of this defense does not. All four starters return at linebacker, and there is some experience and quality among the reserves as well. If Kash Daniel takes over in the middle for Courtney Love as many observers believe he will, it will be a sign that Kentucky is taking a step up in athleticism. As for the secondary, this is one of the best in the conference, if not the country. All four starters, all juniors, have the potential to reach the NFL a year early. There is also good depth, particularly at safety. The cornerback combination of Derrick Baity and Chris Westry gives Kentucky a pair of players who are 6’3” and 6’4”, respectively.
There are no worries at the kicking spots. Placekicker Austin MacGinnis is virtually automatic. Punter Grant McKinniss had a rough freshman campaign but has looked good in offseason work. The return game could use some improvement, however.
Overall trend: Up. Kentucky may finish 6-6 but actually improve over last year’s 7-5 results in the regular season. Stoops’ main job when he took over in Lexington was to build Kentucky into a program that didn’t see sporadic peaks interspersed with decades of futility. The SEC East is still vulnerable, and Kentucky is jockeying with Missouri and South Carolina to become the division’s consistent No. 4 program behind big hitters Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. And in a year like 2017, when Florida and Tennessee both may be on an ebb flow, Kentucky needs to have the potential to challenge. It just may be so in 2017.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessn
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