Kentucky football's offense was not productive last season - especially once the team began SEC play. If there was a silver lining it was that the offense improved relative to the 2012 season. The numbers show improvement in both the raw stats and also the F/+ rankings which are adjusted for level of competition, garbage time stats, and some other variables (0% represents a perfectly average team). Behold:
- 2012: 18 points per game; yards per play 4.78; 315 yards per game; F/+ -7.9% ranked 104th
- 2013: 21 points per game; yards per play 5.29; 341 yards per game; F/+ -3.3% ranked 74th
Unfortunately, the improvement was not enough, and UK had the next lowest rated total offense in the SEC next to the dumpster fire that was Florida. There are several causes: roster attrition (and this is a team-wide issue), poor interior offensive line play, a far too heavy reliance on freshmen, and talent limitations to name but a few. Yet, it's a new year and I do suspect UK's offensive ratings will improve again this year. By how much is the key question. Spring practice performances could serve as a harbinger for things to come this season.
The quarterback competition will receive a lot of headlines this year. Each player does things well; each player has some things to work on. For example, Patrick Towles has reportedly the strongest arm on the team but he has a slow release that holds him back. Jalen Whitlow can make plays with his feet but his arm strength and decision-making need to improve. Maxwell Smith's struggles with his shoulder go back two full seasons. Last off-season he declined surgery hoping it would heal on its own, but it never really did. Smith will miss spring ball this year due to recovering from his shoulder surgery. His shoulder may never be the same again.
The coaches indicated towards the end of last season that if not for being redshirted Reese Phillips would have started the last two weeks of the season. They complimented his accuracy and decision-making. Remember, Alabama started sniffing around Phillips late in his recruitment. No offer materialized but it says a lot about his abilities that he drew Nick Saban's interest. Drew Barker enrolled early and he will have to adjust to the speed of the college game. If Barker is not named the starter he will hopefully be redshirted. Barker has expressed a willingness to do so. Barker will be a great leader once he takes the helm. It just may not be this year.
Speculating, I tend to believe that the upperclassman quarterback who gets buried deepest in the depth chart will explore transfer opportunities immediately following spring practice. Whether he goes or not after the spring semester is another question. Spring ball will be a great opportunity for one of these guys to make an impression. It's audition that will give them all equal reps with the first string. That won't be the case by the end of fall camp when reps with the first string cease to be distributed evenly if at all.
UK lost starter Raymond Sanders and back-up Jonathon George to graduation, and reserve Dyshawn Mobley to transfer, but UK returns its leading rusher Jojo Kemp. Additionally, Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard will be eligible after sitting out last season. The same goes for The University of Pittsburgh transfer Demitrious Davis who could split time between running back and slot receiver.
Josh Clemons will also be returning after sitting out last season due an Achilles injury. The star-crossed Clemons also had a major knee injury the season before. Finally, freshman early enrollee Mikel Horton will also be participating. Someone from this group needs to emerge as a reliable play-maker in order to relieve the pressure on the quarterback and wide receivers. Efficient offensive balance is imperative for success.
In all likelihood, Kemp and Heard will be named the eventual starters. Kemp progressed last season as a runner, pass-catcher, and he also improved his pass protection. By all accounts, Heard will be a stud this season. It sounds like he made the most of his practice squad sojourn, kept a great attitude, and improved in various areas. He's put on good weight and sounds like candidate to be a leader on the offense. All this for a guy who was already averaging nearly 7 yards per carry in his sophomore year at Nebraska.
Depth at the running back position is vital. Over the course of a season the wear and tear on running backs is inevitable. The return of Clemons will be very important for depth if he stays healthy. As a freshman, Clemons showed promise, but has been sidelined by injury two consecutive seasons. If he is able to lock down the third string running back slot, which I think he will, he should see 5-8 snaps per game. Horton will probably be Clemons chief competition for this slot. Horton's early enrollment will give him a leg up, and his physical running style may be needed for a running back group that largely relies on its speed. Short yardage situations will be inevitable.
I admit to not knowing much about Davis. At Pitt he was used primarily as a hybrid running back-slot receiver. I suspect that will be his role at UK as well, but he will provide much needed depth at the running back position this season if needed.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
UK returns all of its wide receivers but did lose two of its tight ends to graduation. Returning are UK's four leading pass catchers: Javess Blue, Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet, and Demarco Robinson. The returning tight end likely to see the most snaps this spring is Steve Borden. Daryl Collins, Rashad Cunningham, AJ Legree, and Ronnie Shields will likely compete for back-up positions.
Alexander Montgomery may or may not be fully recovered from last season's injury by the start of the season. He could end up redshirting. Neal Brown has stated that in order to run the Air Raid at the ideal tempo he needs 10-12 wide receivers. Last year, several walk-ons were forced into action. Playing time is for the taking with this group, because outside of Blue and Timmons, no one really separated themselves from the pack last season.
From this group at least two play-makers need to emerge in order for the offense to be balanced and effective. Timmons and Blue both showed flashes of this ability last year, but they'll need to be more consistent this season. Separation from press coverage was hit-or-miss, and Timmons route-running abilities weren't spectacular, which is typical for most freshmen.Neal Brown tried different things to get the ball in their hands last season. Either through screens, reverses, or the first option on passing downs. I expect that to continue.
If Montgomery was healthy I was interested to see if he made the move to tight end. Montgomery will not beat many defensive backs with his speed, but he would be a match-up nightmare for many linebackers. He already seemed to have the best hands on the team. Unfortunately, his knee injury will prevent him from participating this spring, and he could be a redshirt candidate this season depending on his recovering progress.
Legree, Collins, Robinson, and Badet are all receivers that can improve their playing time with great play this spring. Robinson started last season but I'm interested to see how much weight he's put on in the off season. He has abilities, but his lack of strength has hurt him at times. Badet had a promising second half of the season, and his improvement probably has continued. He needs to push Robinson for reps. Legree came from Joker's last signing class and was a track star in high school. Last season he was third string behind Blue and Montgomery. Heading into his junior year he needs to start contributing and fighting for time, especially with the injury to Montgomery.
The wide receiver corps, more than any other position, would have been helped if one or two more of the 2014 signees enrolled early besides Thaddeus Snodgrass. Unfortunately, Blake Bone and Dorian Baker won't be participating in the strength and condition program and spring practice. UK already is loaded with smaller inside receivers and needs more of the taller outside receivers. Bone or Baker's height will be needed this season, but they will be raw when they show up to August camp. I don't suspect they will be able to contribute on the field until the latter part of the season - if at all next year.
UK's offense will need more explosive plays this season from this group. I'm cautiously optimistic this group will be more effective this year. An off season in the weight room should add bulk, lateral quickness, flexibility, and speed. More muscle should help improve their "yards after catch", and quickness and speed should help create separation in press coverage. UK over-relied on freshmen last year at the receiver position, and a year of experience should also help with mentality and technique.
The offensive line lost one starter in guard Kevin Mitchell, but all other starters return. Last season the offensive line struggled, especially in the interior. This was probably due to Mitchell's nagging injuries and youth at the other two positions. Both tackles, Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle, both played pretty well for most of last season. Jon Toth struggled at the center position but with a year of seasoning under his belt he should improve. i suspect Zach Meyers will get some looks at filling Mitchell's old guard position. This spring could see several offensive linemen shuffling positions to see where they fit best. Last season, for example, saw Toth getting most of his reps at offensive tackle so a lot could change by the time the season starts.
Importantly, UK was able to redshirt all of last season's freshmen offensive linemen. All will provide depth, but I suspect Ramsey Meyers will also be competing for a starting position this year at the open guard position. Towards the end of last season both Meyers and Kyle Meadows were singled out by the coaches regarding their improvement. I doubt Meadows beats out Miller or Swindle for a starting tackle spot, but he should provide key depth at that position. Nick Haynes probably projects as an interior linemen given his measurables, but he will also be a candidate for shuffling this spring to see where he fits best.
Nonetheless, the problems of depth persists. Looking at the roster makes it clear why Stoops signed two interior and two exterior offensive linemen in 2014 and will probably do so again this recruiting cycle. Last season, UK's linemen managed to avoid serious injuries but that won't always be the case. If any of the starters get hurt their likely replacement will be redshirt freshmen or walk-ons. If a young quarterback is starting he will need all the help with pass protection he can get, and none are as mobile as Whitlow.