Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Without getting too in depth about the 2014 season, this clichéd dichotomy fits. After six games the Cats were a play from being 6-0, and were in the discussion as one of the nation's most improved teams. Patrick Towles looked like a future first-round pick, and Neal Brown was pushing all the right buttons from Wildcat to WildPat.
In the second half of the season, someone finally let the fifth and sixth graders out for recess and Kentucky looked like the fourth grader no longer holding his own in the kickball game that is the SEC. Yes, the schedule was heavily backloaded, but with the exception of the Louisville and Mississippi State games, Kentucky looked no better than they did in 2012 or 2013.
In all, I'd call it two large steps forward followed by a large step back.
Next year looks to be a make or break one in the Stoops regime. Not make or break in the sense of giving up on him, but in the sense that next year is going to inform the direction of the program more than any other. The incoming recruiting class is the last that can be sold on promise. If Kentucky can continue its upward trajectory and get bowl eligible, good things are going to keep happening. Falling backwards isn't an option if the Stoops era is to be considered a success. As Mitch Barnhart unveils the new Commonwealth Stadium along with new prices, he'll be keeping a watchful (and I'd assume very nervous) eye on the scoreboard.
Here are five keys to the 2015 season.
1. Patrick Towles making "the leap"
If the first half of the season proved anything, it's that Patrick Towles has all the tools to be a good SEC quarterback. He has the right size, the right arm, requisite toughness and unexpected speed and elusiveness. As things wound down, however, it was clear that Patrick still has a ways to go. At times he looked like just what he was, a first-year starter playing behind a questionable offensive line against some of the best athletes in the country. His confidence wavered and his accuracy and decision making suffered.
It would be hard not to call Towles one of the bright spots of this team, and his perseverance in winning the job was the most heartening Wildcats story of 2014. This should have won him the locker room and I have a hard time believing that there will be a serious quarterback competition in 2015.
Still, QB play is one of the many areas where Kentucky will need improvement to win is 2015. Take heart in this comparison. Player A -146 completions/253 attempts, 57.7%, 6TDs/6INTs, 1644 yards, 6.5 yards per attempt. Player B- 225/398, 57.4%, 14TDs/9INTs, 2718 yards, 6.93. Astute observers may already know that Player A is Andre Woodson in his redshirt sophomore year, Player B is 2014 Towles.
Woodson's junior year numbers improved to 264/419, 63.0%, 31TDs/7INTs, 3515 yards, 8.39 yards per attempt. Does that mean Towles is necessarily destined for that level of production? Of course not. For one thing, Woodson was throwing to 5 future NFL players (look it up) plus Rafeal Little, an ace pass catcher out of the backfield. Not to mention, eye popping numbers like that just don't happen every day. Still, this demonstrates what can happen once a QB gets an extra season under his belt. More importantly, Towles is slightly ahead of where Woodson was at this stage, more than slightly, in fact, if we're factoring in his running ability.
Towles will need to improve his accuracy. Considering no QB is likely to complete more than 70% of his passes or less than 50%(without being replaced), a modest 5% jump makes a world of difference. If Patrick can come in closer to 63.0%, we'll be seeing a much more effective offense.
2. Replacing Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree.
There were times this year when I looked out on the field and wondered where Kentucky's defense would be without these two. Well, in 2015 we are not going to have to wonder, because they're both going to be in the NFL. I'm afraid for Kentucky's pass rush and prospects for overall defensive production. In addition to Smith and Dupree, the Cats lose DT Mike Douglas, their next most productive pass rusher, who had a very good senior year.
Kentucky simply does not have the talent on hand to replace these two and is going to have to be creative to get pressure on the quarterback. Jason Hatcher will be the team's first option at either end or as a rushing outside linebacker. Hatcher had a solid year as a true freshman then, frankly, leveled off completely in 2014. Next year has to be go time for this heralded recruit with NFL aspirations. I personally would like to see DT Reggie Meant, a redshirt freshman noted for his speed, move out to DE as tackle should be one of the deeper positions on the team. Keep in mind, "deeper" is a relative term.
Rising seniors Jabari Johnson and Farrington Huguenin have both shown flashes. Hopefully one or both can have a breakthrough 2015.
Finally, the Cats need Blake McClain to do his best Honey Badger imitation next year, blitzing from different spots on the field and trying to cause havoc. He was good in that role this year and I hope UK takes some more gambles and really unleashes him in 2015.
3. Production from the Tight End.
The bad news, UK got a total of 7 catches from the TE position this year. Worse news, UK got a total of 0 catches from players who will return at the TE position next year. Darryl Long, who redshirted in 2014, appears to be the only returning scholarship player at the position. C.J. Conrad arrives as a freshman from LaGrange, Ohio, but it is not an ideal spot to expect production from a true freshman.
Unless UK can pull out a plum from the JUCO ranks, expect very little from the position in 2015.
4. Special Teams.
This goes without saying, but Kentucky must improve in both the coverage and return game in 2015. Craig Naivar has taken a ton of heat. Funny how a coach gets blame when his coverage team plays poorly and no credit for coaching up one of the best kickers in the country, but I digress. To shore things up, I think the Cats need to take on a high school mentality and put their best 11 out there on special teams regardless of their other roles on the team. If that means loading up on starters, so be it. This year there were breakdowns, sure. But there were also players out there at times who would have better off watching.
Of course the carousel is still spinning, but I expect Naivar to survive the offseason. I don't think he'll make it another year if things don't improve in 2015.
5. Offensive Line.
I truly don't know what to say here. This unit has to improve for the Air Raid to have success. Not just blocking and protecting, but cutting down on the mind numbing volume of false starts. Say this for the line, the lack of depth has forced them to play musical chairs to get the best players on the field when injuries or performance issues creep up. As a former offensive lineman, I can vouch that this is less than ideal. It says a lot that they were able to hold it together under these circumstances. Hopefully, this will be the year Jon Schlarman can plug and play backups when necessary to keep the key players in the positions they are used to. As always, it comes back to recruiting and the bare cupboard Stoops and Co. were left with.
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