Back last month, Bill Connelly did the Big 2014 Kentucky Football Guide, which is everything statistical we need to know about Kentucky football, plus observations from an expert on the subject of college football in general. I want to take a few minutes to examine Bill’s observations and highlight a few things as we prepare for the Wildcats’ first outing of the season against UT Martin this weekend.
Bill starts out with a review of what Mark Stoops has done recruiting-wise, and makes this observation:
And now comes the wait. Even if every four-star signee plays like a four-star signee, that probably isn’t going to make much of a difference in 2014. Kentucky has ranked 112th and 97th in the F/+ rankings over the last two years; there’s no quick rebound from that, at least not unless you’re named Auburn.
It’s absolutely fair that Connelly disclaims Auburn, because Auburn last season was a genuine anomaly. The Tigers had some talent in 2012, but their abysmal performance was an underachieving effort. Consider that Auburn in 2012 had two interceptions, even worse than Kentucky’s three INT’s last season. In 2013 they had 13. It goes without saying, that had an impact on their improved record, even if they hadn’t totally revamped the offense. Auburn’s example of a fast turnaround is exactly what Kentucky hopes for this season.
It’s pretty easy to imagine Kentucky doing much better last season if they had 10 additional takeaways. That secondary that has been so painfully young the last two years is now more talented, and much more experienced. But we’ll get to that.
Looking at Kentucky’s F+ progression (See Bill’s article for the chart), the Wildcats declined in an ugly way starting in 2010, bottoming out in 2012. Believe it or not, Kentucky has been improving offensively over it’s nadir in 2011, but the defense actually showed no meaningful improvement over the last two seasons. There is no real doubt both will improve this season, the primary question being "By how much?" There is certainly a lot of room for improvement.
In 2014, we’ll find out if the experience that so many young players got was a good, developmental thing, or whether it was more akin to a triple-A pitcher getting promoted too early and stunting growth.
This is always a question mark. Most of us observers of the game think that getting freshmen involved early in their careers is an unalloyed good thing, but it isn’t always the case. We have seen cases, such as with Patrick Towles, when inexperience results in a serious injury that retards their growth. Fortunately, Towles was able to work through that and come out okay. Also consider DeMarco Robinson, who saw quite a bit of freshman play, wind up getting somewhat set back after their freshman season.
But we’ve also seen players like Jojo Kemp, who made a big move his freshman year and looks like he’ll continue to build on that in a major way this season. Jason Hatcher also impressed in his freshman season, and he has done nothing to dissuade optimism about his performance this season.
Bill’s review of the quarterbacks is somewhat rote, basically a regurgitation of the woes of Kentucky at the position. While his article was written well before Patrick Towles was promoted to the starting QB spot, his general notes still remain true; Drew Barker, Towles, and Reese Phillips are all very close at the spot, while Maxwell Smith remains doubtful to see action this year, and possibly for the rest of his career.
The running backs look almost as exciting in Connelly’s chart as they do to us in person. It’s remarkable how deep and talented Kentucky’s running backs are this season, and that isn’t lost on Connelly:
Raymond Sanders III and Jojo Kemp were efficient runners but lacked in explosiveness; Kemp returns and is joined by a variety of interesting newcomers – Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard (also more efficient than explosive at NU), junior Josh Clemons (technically not a newcomer, but he hasn’t played since 2011 after a series of injuries), explosive blue-chip freshman Boom Williams, and big freshman Mikel Horton. You’ve got plenty of big, plenty of small, and plenty of options.
"Plenty of options" is the perfect way to describe Kentucky’s running back situation this season, and I expect Neal Brown to take advantage of those options. Moving the ball on the ground is something Kentucky has been able to do even the last two seasons, and that looks to be doubly true this year.
Regarding the receivers, while Kentucky’s stable of them looks impressive,
Javess Blue Jeff Badet who figures to be one of if not the very best a much-improved receiver this season is out for at least the first two games due to an eye injury suffered in practice. Obviously, if you are going to lose one of your top targets, losing him early is infinitely preferable to losing him late, and I suppose the Wildcats will just have to count themselves fortunate in that regard.
But still, looking down the lineup of receivers and their performances to date does not give you a thrill that they are going to really break out this season. Combine that with freshmen seeing a larger role than you want, and it gives us all something less than a warm-and-fuzzy feeling.
Having said that, the offensive line is another story. Consider:
Kentucky has almost double the returning career starts (39 heading into 2013, 74 heading into 2014), a year in Brown’s system, and almost all of last year’s two-deep returning. The running backs should be pretty efficient, and the QBs won’t be any worse at taking sacks. Only three of the seven players with starting experience are seniors, too, so good continuity in 2014 could lead to more good continuity in 2015.
Now, this gives us some legitimate hope. If this OL group can either run block or pass block well and be competent at the other, it should give Wildcats fans reason to cheer.
Turning now to defense, Bill starts off with an admonition: "A pass rush can only take you so far," in a nod to Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith’s return to anchor the edges of the Kentucky defense, and provide the kind of "storm the castle" pass rush that flushes quarterbacks and forces wrong-leg throws:
Now, a pass rush is important, and if Kentucky was able to leverage you into passing downs (a rarity), Wildcat ends were often able to tee off. Ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks and served as one of the league’s better duos in that regard; in D.J. Eliot’s 4-2-5 system, it’s key to be able to generate pressure without blitzing too much. You can check that box.
Note the key caveat here; "if Kentucky was able to leverage you into passing downs (a rarity)." Having a great pass rush does you no good if opponents don’t have to throw the ball, and unfortunately, that was all too often the case last season. With the loss of Avery Williamson plus two senior starters on the line, it’s fair to wonder if that pass rush will have much opportunity to tee off on anybody. But then again, does Matt Elam and the surprising play of Ryan Flannigan at linebacker give us hope for some good, old-fashioned run-stuffing. Too early to tell, but a definite maybe.
Moving on to the secondary:
Good news: Kentucky returns its top nine defensive backs from 2013.
Bad news: These nine are returning from one of the nation’s worst secondaries.
This is one of those things we see every season, kind of like the defensive line last year. It looks like it should be ready for prime time, but is it? The DL was a disappointment last season other than Smith and Dupree, but the secondary was exactly as expected — pathetic. Will age and experience equal competence? We’d like to think so.
The punting game, both in terms of coverage and in terms of being able to return the ones kicked to the Wildcats last year, was … let’s just say there are lots of opportunities for improvement. Joe Mansour did a fine job kicking the ball high and deep, but Kentucky lacked both consistency and explosiveness in the punting game. That will have to be better this season.
To wrap it all up, Connelly tells us that September is the month that will tell the tale of the 2014 Wildcats:
I do see Kentucky improving on paper in 2014, but what that means for expectations will depend on how September goes. If UK avoids upset against Ohio and beats Vanderbilt at home, they could start the season 3-1 (4-2 by mid-October), and if you’re looking for "They’ve got momentum!" storylines, that’s a good way to generate some.
This is exactly right. The Ohio Bobcats will not be an easy victory if it’s a victory at all, and Vanderbilt, as has been explained here more than once, has moved into the category of a must-win game — opportunities for SEC wins are going to be mighty hard to come by with this schedule, so defeating the rebuilding Commodores looks like life-or-death for this team’s hopes of a significantly improved season, and the unfortunate possibility of getting shut out against SEC foes for the third straight season.
All in all, it’s just brutal honesty, but there is some reason for optimism in there that you don’t want to miss. Bill is one of the sharpest analysts in modern college football, and in preparation for this season, you’ll want to read the whole thing. Even if some of the stats stuff is over your head, you’ll get the idea.