Previews 2019: Florida, Georgia and Kentucky

Jul 16, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops answers questions during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats

Projected record: 6-6 (MSU, UF, UGA, USC, UM, UT); 2-6 and 6th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 4 (QB, WR, LG, C)
Returning defensive starters: 4 (RDE, NG, MLB, SLB)
Returning specialists: 1 (P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Vg
WR: Av DB: Pr
OL: Av ST: Av

Offense – what’s to like: Surprisingly, it’s hard to find a lot to get excited about on the offensive side of the ball considering this is a team that won 10 games and returns its starting quarterback. The best thing that can be said, other than assuming QB Terry Wilson is going to improve with another yet under center, is that the offensive line doesn’t look half-bad. Break out the faint praise.

Logan Stenberg and Drake Jackson lead the returning starters at left guard and center, respectively, and Kentucky gets LT Landon Young back after a season lost to a leg injury. His return is huge, and it gives the Wildcats a strong weak side to the line. Kentucky also gets back leading receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. Bowden caught 67 passes in 2018, but averaged only 11.1 yards per catch and scored just 5 touchdowns. Kentucky needs to figure a way to get him open in space and let him make plays.

Offense – potential pitfalls: Everything else. Bowden may have not been the most efficient receiver, but he is one of only two returning receivers who caught more than 100 yards in passes last year. The Wildcats ranked 117th in passing offense and having to rebuild from the ground up isn’t helpful. On top of that, experienced backup quarterback Gunnar Hoak transferred to Ohio State, although the Wildcats did convince Troy transfer Sawyer Smith to come to Lexington.

The running back group isn’t in such dire shape, although replacing Benny Snell won’t be easy. A.J. Rose averaged 6.2 yards per carry as his backup last year and should move easily into the starting role, but there is no experienced backup. The tight end position must also be rebuilt, as losing C.J. Conrad will be felt. Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez both showed flashes before being redshirted last year, at least.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: The front seven is actually in pretty good shape, especially the linebacker group, where Kash Daniel patrols the middle. In addition to his physical abilities, Daniel has shown the ability to be a strong leader for the unit. Jamar Watson returns at the strongside linebacker position, while sophomores Chris Oats and DeAndre Square are battling for the weakside position.

The defensive line had probably its best performance in years, and two of the three starters return. Calvin Taylor and Quinton Bohanna should anchor things inside, while Josh Paschal fights senior T.J. Carter for the open spot at end. If Paschal steps up as expected, the rating we gave this unit will look vastly underestimated. On special teams, punter Max Duffy had a solid 2018 season and can be counted upon.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: The secondary is as green as a ripe cucumber. No starters return, and JUCO cornerbacks Brandin Echols and Quandre Mosely are starting fall camp off injured. Cedrick Dort Jr.., expected to start across from either Echols or Mosely, is a boom-bust playmaker that can expect a lot of growing pains. Kentucky ranked 18th against the pass in 2018 but there seems to be little chance of a repeat.

As for the rest, it’s a fair question to ask how much of Kentucky’s defensive accolades were directly attributable to Josh Allen. When a Jack linebacker leads the team in tackles with 88, it should be a clear sign he’s a special talent. Jordan Wright is the man in the spotlight, tasked with replacing Allen. If Kentucky can’t get a push from up front, the new secondary is going to get torched. There is also uncertainty surrounding the placekicking position until Chance Poore or another steps up.

Final analysis: Ten-win seasons aren’t sustainable for Kentucky football simply because the recruiting isn’t consistent enough to handle the task. This is a rebuilding year, and unfortunately for Kentucky, the Wildcats didn’t bring in enough blue-chip playmakers in February to counter the losses to graduation and the NFL. A bowl trip would be considered a good year in Lexington, and then hope that the general upward trend continues in future seasons.

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