The new football season is upon us and there is finally reason to again be excited about the program. The shadows of the Joker Phillips still linger around Commonwealth Stadium, but the light of Mark Stoops and his enthusiastic new staff is starting to make those shadows dissipate.
Stoops and his staff are not shying away from the fact that there will be challenges to face as the 2013 season progresses. A murder's row of opponents lurk after just two games. Depth is an issue at multiple positions on the field. New offensive and defensive schemes need to be mastered in just a few weeks and then implemented on the fly.
But it's time to focus on renewal. Summer camp has begun and there are some intriguing storylines that need to be addressed as this young team prepares for the season ahead.
1. The Quarterback Battle- Mark Stoops and Neal Brown have been and will remain tight lipped about this all-important position until the week before the Western Kentucky game. Quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all have an equal shot at winning the starting job. But none of them are allowed to talk about it for the duration of summer camp as they have been sworn to silence. At media day Neal Brown discussed the positive attributes of each player as well as a few of the negatives.
Brown likes Smith's accuracy and the fact that he can be productive when healthy. Obviously the negative with Smith is the fact that he has been injury prone throughout his career at Kentucky. He is still battling a shoulder injury that could put him back on the sidelines at any time.
Patrick Towles is a big kid with a very strong arm and is a more mobile quarterback that his is given credit for. But his release isn't as quick as the coach needs it to be in the style of offense that will be used at Kentucky.
Whitlow is one of the best athletes on the team and has multiple tools that could be productive in Brown's offense. He is a flat out playmaker that was thrown into the fire in the SEC last season and improved as time went on in his time at quarterback.
This may be anyone's job to win but one has to think that Whitlow has the edge at this point due to his playmaking ability.
2. JUCO Contributions- Stoops had to bring in new blood with experience. Enter Za'Darius Smith (DE), Javess Blue (WR), Steven Borden (TE), Joey Harrick (WR), and hopefully Nate Willis (DB ) as some of the old new guys that will be relied upon to make some noise early.
The big name of the group is Za'Darius Smith. He is a monster of a man and looks to be NFL ready right now. During the spring game he was virtually impossible to block. He is getting some decent love from the powers that be in the SEC and will be the focal point of what looks to be a strong unit in the defensive line.
Javess Blue just recently made it onto campus. He is a 6'1 wide receiver with the body made of solid rock. Newcomer Joey Harrick was a big surprise addition during media day. He is another 6'1 receiver and he runs the 40 yard dash in 4.42 seconds. The size and speed of this duo is a welcome addition to what was thought to be one of the weakest units on the team.
Nate Willis is a highly regarded defensive back that would be immediately improve another depleted unit in the secondary. Willis is still waiting to hear whether or not he qualified academically to play for the Wildcats. According the coach Stoops he has done all that he needed to do as far as classes are concerned and is just waiting from the OK by the NCAA. Hopefully a decision is made ASAP.
3. Which Freshmen Are Ready to Make an Impact? - One thing is for certain with this year's Wildcat team; freshmen will have big opportunities to shine. Some names that were heard at media day were Ryan Timmons, Jojo Kemp, Jason Hatcher and Jeff Badet.
The offensive guys may get more of an opportunity to contribute early than Hatcher. Kemp will be thrown into the fire according to Neal Brown. Brown likes Kemp's ability at the running back position and plans to use him right away in the Air Raid system. With Dyshawn Mobley out due to hernia surgery, the door just opened a little wider for Kemp to make an early splash.
Ryan Timmons will start off working as a wide receiver but Brown indicated that he will also be moved to running back if the situation calls for it. This isn't a surprise as Kentuckians that followed Timmons in high school are well aware of his Jack-of-All-Trades reputation on the football field. His speed and elusiveness is reminiscent of Randall Cobb. But Timmons is actually much, much faster.
Badet benefits from lack of bodies at the receiver position. He isn't as tall as Blue or Harrick but his skills are almost on par with the others.
Jason Hatcher finds himself in a crowded house on the defensive line, but reports are that the Louisvillian is ready to go now. This gives the defensive line another fresh body that could be rotated in if either Bud Dupree or Za'Darius Smith needs a break. Many dominant SEC defenses have used this tactic in the past with great success in order to wear down offensive lineman. A good defensive line that puts pressure on the quarterback could help mask deficiencies at other positions.
Here are some other quick hitter topics to look for during summer camp:
- How will the relatively young offensive line look? Reports were that the unit looked good in spring practices but took a step back during the spring game.
- How quick will the players on offense pick up the Air Raid?
- Who will be the third linebacker to start with Avery Williamson and Khalid Henderson? Right now the smart money is on Kory Brown but don't count out Miles Simpson.
- Who is going to step up in the secondary? Right now Fred Tiller, Ashely Lowery, Daron Blaylock and Cody Quinn are listed as the starters but much of that can change. Stoops has yet to decide whether or not he will further punish Lowery. Also, none of the other guys are considered to be locks, especially if Willis makes it on campus or if another player, perhaps Glenn Faulkner or Eric Dixon, come ready to play.
- Can A.J. Legree, Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins hang on to their starting jobs with the arrival of Blue and Harrick? The great thing about the Air Raid is that wide receivers are utilized by committee and there should be plenty of balls to go around.
- How exactly does the tight end fit into the system? Vince Marrow's unit is full and Ronnie Shields has already been moved from tight end to wide receiver. There are still four guys ready to play.
That's all for now folks. Keep an eye out as these intriguing topics unfold and more present themselves as camp moves towards Nashville and the Hilltoppers. It's football in the Blue Grass and the sun is finally rising once again in the Commonwealth.