Kentucky Football: Why UK will be one of the biggest surprises of 2014

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Most prognosticators predict UK to win one or two more games than last year, I plan to explain why I feel that will be more like four or five more than last season.

The 2014 version of UK Football, by all indications will be an improvement over last season.  To be honest though, an improvement over two wins and being manhandled in many of last year's losses is nothing to crow about.  The guys in Vegas who set betting lines for a living have our Cats set at 3.5 wins.  I do not have to remind everyone just how good these guys are at what they do.  To the outside world, it appears to be a slightly better, yet very underwhelming year for the Big Blue Nation.

I have never been one to deny I wear a very blue shade of tinted glasses when it comes to the Wildcats.  However, I feel I am rational about expectations and hopes vs. actual results.  It is that very reason I have struggled with coming to this conclusion publicly.  My opinion is that this year's Wildcats will go 7-5 in the regular season.  With that proclamation, I am essentially telling Vegas to eat a big old crapburger... not very rational.  I plan to spend the next few paragraphs convincing you of just why I feel that Big Blue Nation will be rejoicing in Shreveport, Houston, Charlotte, or Nashville this bowl season.

The Quarterback Position

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When last season began the QB depth chart consisted of Jalen Whitlow followed by Maxwell Smith and then a redshirting Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles.  By the end of the season, it was no secret that Reese Phillips was actually the better option, however, the staff wanted to keep the redshirt on him so we did not see him.

Fast Forward to this spring; Patrick Towles takes a tremendous leap forward and heralded 4-star recruit and early enrollee Drew Barker is already on campus.  The continued consistency of Phillips and the aforementioned additions mean Jalen Whitlow goes from last years opening week starter to Georgia State transfer due to an off-season position switch.  That is not a knock on Whitlow, it simply means that in a years time, UK now has THREE different players who are upgrades for Neal Brown's Air Raid system.  The bottom line is that no matter which of the three jogs out there on offense, we are absolutely going to have increased production and efficiency at the position that will post immediate dividends on the field and scoreboard.

The Running Back position

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I wrote "The Four Horsemen" article a few months back talking about the recent history of the running backs at UK.  I wrote of how Kentucky teams of the past would be lucky to have any one of the four running backs that will get reps this season, much less all four at once.  At the beginning of last season, the starter was Raymond Sanders III, backed up by Jonathan George with freshman JoJo Kemp behind him.  By the end of the season JoJo Kemp was coming into his own as the #1 back and Raymond Sanders did not even get to finish his senior year on field.

Fast-forward to this season and by the time the Cats open up, they will have five possible options to get reps and at least three of them are better options than Sanders was.  Kemp will be back with a full year of SEC experience and a full year under Erik Korem's high performance system (More on that later).  Beyond Kemp, the Cats will have Braylon Heard eligible, a transfer from Nebraska.  Heard busted his butt this redshirt year and by all indications will have a very significant impact this season.  Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown said this of Heard:

"He took as much advantage of a redshirt year as anybody I've seen," Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.  "He was a little stiff in his hips and in his movements, and he went to work and did a great job with our strength and conditioning guys, became more flexible and looks a whole lot different than he did when he was at Nebraska."

Then there is Josh Clemons.  Clemons is back and as healthy as he has ever been.  Clemons is a legitimate SEC back who had a strong showing his freshman season before two devastating injuries postponed his career until this spring.

If those three are not the answer, the Cats have a pair of highly touted and highly talented freshmen coming to campus in Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams.  Horton is a top 25 recruit from Ohio that Florida State wanted on campus.  In addition to Horton, Williams was a one-time Georgia commit and highly rated all-purpose back with offers from Auburn, Clemson, and Florida State as well as Kentucky and the Dawgs.  The bottom line is that UK will have a minimum of three SEC caliber running backs this season rather than a very green true freshman that was learning the league last year.

Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons

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Blue and Timmons were the top two pass catchers in both receptions and yardage for the Wildcats last season and I do not expect that to change.  What I do expect to happen is an exponential step forward for both of them based off two things; 1) The QB and offensive upgrade and 2) both have a full year under their belt now.  The step forward for Timmons is going to be natural, he will be a sophomore, and will naturally have a bigger impact and skill set than last year.

However, I expect Blue to emerge as one of the top receivers in the entire league.  Blue will be a senior and you do not have to look far to see what kind of jump JUCO players have from year one to year two.  Most recently, Chris Matthews tripled his output in year 2:

Chris Matthews

Year

School

Pos

G

Rec

Yds

Avg

TD

2009

Kentucky

WR

13

32

354

11.1

3

2010

Kentucky

WR

13

61

925

15.2

9

Career

93

1279

12

Before Matthews you can look at Stevie Johnson as an even better example of an exponential jump in production in year 2:

Stevie Johnson

Year

School

Pos

G

Rec

Yds

Avg

TD

2006

Kentucky

WR

13

12

159

13.3

1

2007

Kentucky

WR

13

60

1041

17.4

13

Career

72

1160

14

I fully expect Blue to have similar numbers to Stevie Johnson's senior year output.  The exciting part is that Blue had a very good year last year, much better than either Matthews or Johnson when they were in year one.  Beyond Blue and Timmons, the Cats will also have more talent around them.  Senior Demarco Robinson enjoyed a strong spring and is always a threat to go the distance when he gets the ball in space.  The Cats also have some very talented pass catchers coming to campus in the form of  T.V. Williams, Thaddeus Snodgrass, Dorian Baker, and Blake Bone.  All of them have the talent to contribute effectively and immediately.

The Defensive Line

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At first glance, UK lost a lot upfront on the defensive line.  There is no denying the losses of Mister Cobble, Donte Rumph, and Tristian Johnson will be an obstacle.  However, I expect the pain to be short lived as the talent to improve is there.  The interior looks like a rotation of JUCO stud Cory Johnson, redshirt freshman Reggie Meant, Jacob Hyde, Mike Douglas, and Melvin Lewis.  There are potential freshmen that will challenge for playing time, barring a redshirt.  They come in the form of heralded recruit Matt Elam and Adrian Middleton.  However, the toughest position for a true freshman to make an impact in the SEC is on the defensive line so I would not hold my breath on those two for 2014.

This brings me to the biggest reason the defensive front will be a strength, the dynamic duo of seniors Za'Darius Smith, and Bud Dupree returning for another year in the commonwealth instead of playing on Sundays.  They are #1 and #2 respectively in the SEC in returning sack leaders.  There is no reason to think it will not be that way again again in 2014.  Another off-season in Erik Korem's high performance system should boost these two to potential SEC superstardom and national acclaim while leaving the BBN with memories of the duo wreaking havoc in the backfield for years to come.

Beyond the defensive line, there are questions and concerns in the linebacking corps and the defensive backs group.  There will be a lot of new faces but with those faces come a lot of talent.  Coach Mark Stoops made his hay as a defensive coach so I have no doubt we will not see a regression in the second and third layers of defense.

Neal Brown and Air Raid

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It was no secret that offensive coordinator Neal Brown was unable to run the offense he wanted to last year due to limitations.  That will certainly not be the case this year as he will have impactful upgrades at the Quarterback, Running Back, and Wide Receiver positions.

UK's offense ranked 110th in yards per game and 109th in points per game in 2013.  While the Cats may not reach the heights of the 2010 and 2011 Red Raiders offense (20th and 12th), a significant improvement closer to the latter numbers is a virtual certainty.

Erik Korem and his High Performance Training system

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Erik Korem is taking the athletic world in America by storm with his innovative high performance training system that is in place at the university.  This system focuses on the specific abilities for specific positions.  For instance, Korem does not worry about an offensive tackle with four foot long arms being able to bench press a lot of reps. Korem is not interested in how much a wide receiver can squat, the more important part is his explosiveness and speed.

Korem recently conducted an interview with Kentucky Sports Radio and explained the crux of the system as well as the aforementioned examples.  The system operates around information, being able to track every performance metric during games, practice, and even off the field.  This abundance of information gives Korem and crew the data they need to be able to tweak behaviors and increase efficiencies.  The reason this is revolutionary is that the way nearly all colleges and high schools conduct their strength and conditioning is to get in the weight room, get bigger, get stronger, and hope it equates to results on the field.

Wondering if this is more hype than substance is natural, but you need not look any further than an article from SI.com about Korem's contribution to the new "space age" of sports science. Korem introduced the high performance system to Jimbo Fisher in 2010.  To put into perspective just how much of an impact it has made, Fisher hired a rocket scientist (Chris Jacob) to continue Korem's work after he left for UK with Stoops.  It's also important to note that the Seminoles won the BCS Championship last year.  Just how deep does the system go into a player's ability?  Gary McCoy of Catapult told the following story in the article.

"I don't even want to mention the name of the team, but we saw an NFL center last year, we were looking at he only had [good] movement to his right side - his only high-intensity movements could be to his right and only 22 percent of them were to his left," said McCoy.  "Here's a player who has to go both ways.  When we were able to discern that, it answered a bunch of questions for them."

Korem talks of how he left FSU to follow Coach Stoops and his vision to create a football revolution in Lexington.

When Korem left Florida State following the 2012 season, it was to follow former FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to Kentucky.  Stoops was intent on starting a football-based revolution in Lexington and Korem hopes that will be the launching pad for his own movement - he already has unparalleled support from the university.

"The reason I came with Coach Stoops is number one I believe in him and I believe in what we're doing here," says Korem.  "Number two, he was willing to make me the first high performance manager in American football.

"What we're doing here at Kentucky that's different than pretty much any football program in America right now is we actually have a true high performance model where all of these pieces are working together where we literally sit down as a staff and we script everything to have a certain output, we're measuring externally from the Catapult [system] and everything internally sports science-wise.  We actually have buy-in and assistance from our university exercise science department, so what we're doing here, for me is a very exciting opportunity to come to UK because it's the first time in American football that it's being done."

Since January, seven NFL teams have had Korem in to discuss the program as well as the Australian Olympic committee.  It is hard to imagine that kind of attention for something that is not going to be a huge catalyst for improvement.  The truth is that there just was not enough time for it to make an impact last season as the type of offense Brown wants to run vs. the offense Jimbo Fisher ran requires a whole different strategy for the program, not to mention the assimilation period for players to adjust to an entirely new training approach.

Anyone who has been around the program since Stoops took over has noticed the difference in the players' body development and speed.  In fact, Kentucky may have the most ripped specialists in the country as evidenced in this tweet:

If there is one thing that is a constant with every program is that it seems like every summer people rave about how much bigger and "cut-up" the players are.  However, this goes beyond the look of the players.  I truly think this high performance system being in place for some time now is going to be a major factor in Kentucky essentially shocking the college football world this year.

Going from 2-10 to 7-5 in the SEC at Kentucky would do just that and here is how I think it will play out on the schedule.

  • vs. UT-Martin (Win)
  • vs. Ohio (Win)
  • at Florida (Loss... but competitive)
  • vs. Vanderbilt (Win)
  • vs. South Carolina (Loss - very Narrow loss)
  • vs. ULM (Win)
  • at LSU (Loss)
  • vs. Miss State (Win - this is the game we put it together and lead the entire 2nd half)
  • at Missouri (Win - Huge comeback win for Stoops on the road)
  • vs. Georgia (Loss)
  • at Tennessee (Loss - hate to do it cause this game is winnable, but Neyland will be too much in the 4th quarter)
  • at Louisville (Win - by this time we are kicking on all cylinders and Stoops goes into Louisville and we beat Petrino for the first time since Mike friggin Hartline did it 6 years ago)

Call me crazy and maybe I am... but Stoops and company have gotten me to go all-in and I think it is going to be one helluva year for the Big Blue Nation.

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