Projected record: 7-5 (UF, MSU, TAM, UM, UGA); 3-5 and 5th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (WR, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 8 (RDE, LDE, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 0
QB: Fr DL: Fr
RB: Ex LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Ex
OL: Vg ST: Pr
Overview: If ever an upcoming season felt like a season of change, Kentucky’s 2018 year is beginning to take on that characteristic. The Wildcats have returned to respectability under Mark Stoops, but one just feels like the Wildcat program has hit a ceiling, perhaps a permanent one. Kentucky has never really been a threat in the SEC East, with with Stoops hanging around the .500 mark each year, can Kentucky expect to improve, or will Stoops look to springboard to a bigger program with better prospects?
Offensive breakdown: Stoops preaches offensive explosiveness and balance, but all the numbers indicate is mostly wasted running back talent. Despite having Benny Snell Jr. and Sihiem King on the roster last year, the Wildcats only managed to rank 68th in rushing nationally. Snell and his 1,333 yards return in what will likely be his last year before he vacates Lexington in favor of a new, NFL one. With him, the Wildcats might have the best running back group in the league, but no one will know it if Kentucky can’t get its passing attack off the mat.
Doing so will require a new quarterback, as Stephen Johnson – who started mostly because he was dependable, durable and could run the ball – has moved on. Terry Wilson led Gunnar Hoak for the job coming out of spring, but neither player is expected to be all that dynamic. That’s unfortunate, because Kentucky’s offensive line underachieved in 2017 relative to its experience, and sometimes dynamic ability was needed to overcome the reality of an offensive line who looked confused as to whether to block, or flag the bulls as they went for the matador.
If Wilson can hold onto the job, the former Oregon Duck might finally give Kentucky a spark under center. He’s more mobile than Hoak, but Hoak is probably the more talented arm-man of the duo. Kentucky has seemed to have a lot of talent flow through the position over the past 20 years, but unfortunately the overarching trait of most of those players is that they underachieved.
Rebuilding the receiver corps will also be part of the deal. Abnormally-tall-for-the-slot receiver Tavin Richardson is the best returning option, although Lynn Bowden has star potential if he can harness it. Wilson’s and Hoak’s best friend in the early going will be tight end C.J. Conrad, one of the best at that spot in the SEC. Senior Dorian Baker and sophomores Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps will battle with Bowden for the other two spots flanking Richardson.
The offensive line has the talent and experience to be better, but so far production hasn’t equaled potential. Center Drake Jackson and right guard Bunchy Stallings are solid players, and left guard Logan Stenberg is expected to hold that position. But the tackles are another matter. George Asafo-Adjei was the starter for most of the year at right tackle, but E.J. Price should take that job eventually if he can keep his mind right. Price battled with coaches in the spring, then went on a Twitter rant about it and quit the team for roughly 24 hours. He’s a Southern Cal transfer who is easily one of Kentucky’s best athletes on offense, so this might come down to just how much drama Stoops can stand. Landon Young, who figures to start at left tackle, needs to live up to his recruiting rep.
Defensive/ST breakdown: You would be excused if you took a look at the Wildcats’ pass defense numbers and scratched your head bald. Kentucky returned four junior starters in 2017 and was widely expected to be one of the best secondaries in the SEC, but those expectations went completely bust. Heading into 2018, Kentucky returns four senior starters – and the same expectations of a year ago.
If the Wildcats get better cornerback play in 2018, things ought to go more smoothly. The safety combo of Mike Edwards and Darius West, along with reserve Jordan Griffin, held their own for much of the year. Corners Derrick Baity and Chris Westry, along with nickel corner Lonnie Johnson, all have high expectations. Kentucky has made a concerted effort to add size and especially height to this group, as the corner trio are all 6’3” or taller. Having even on 6’3” corner on an SEC defense is odd; having three is unheard of.
Tied closely to the success of the secondary, of course, is a defensive line that must continue to improve. T.J. Carter was displaced from his spot in the spring, but he’ll get it back by default this fall now that rising star Josh Paschal has injured a foot. Adrian Middleton is steady but not productive enough. The real name to watch is nosetackle Quinton Bohanna, who looks like a future all-SEC player.
The linebacker group may be poised for the biggest breakout, if the two new starters play up to spec. Boogie Watson gets a starting role opposite Josh Allen, while Jordan Jones has a good rep as a weakside linebacker. The key is new MLB Kash Daniel, who gives Kentucky size in the middle comparable with the league leaders. Depth is an issue, though, which was already iffy before Denzil Ware’s puzzling transfer to Jacksonville State in the spring – he was projected to be a star of this defense and a potential draft pick. Kengera Daniel will have to back up both outside spots while true freshman Chris Oats will likely have to shore up the middle. An injury here would be devastating.
As for the special teams units, Kentucky will have a new placekicker, likely Chance Poore, and maybe a new punter as well if Max Duffy can hold off Grant McKinniss. McKinniss held the job for a time in 2017 before losing it. Duffy is the latest Australian import to get a look at punter in the SEC. The return game needs more explosiveness.
Overall trend: Neutral. The Wildcats might make a modest improvement in regards to record, but this is still a program that can’t seem to punch through the glass ceiling overhead. Stoops isn’t the best coach in the SEC by far, but he has hired veteran assistants and recruited at a higher level than his predecessor. The continuous turnover at quarterback and the troubling trend of defensive players to fail to live up to expectations must be stopped, though, or the Wildcats will never be anything more than divisional filler.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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