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Kentucky Football: 2016 Look Ahead

A brief look ahead to the 2016 season.

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

News broke Monday night that Kentucky's bowl hopes went from dim to nonexistent as the NCAA ruled 5-7 teams would make the postseason based on their Academic Progress Rating. Kentucky is too far down the list to pick up any of the last few crumbs, and so Kentucky's 2015 football season ends with a whimper. It's now appropriate to turn our backs to 2015 and look towards the horizon for signs of hope.

The following are a few thoughts that immediately come to mind regarding the 2016 season in no particular order. I managed not to talk about quarterbacks or coaching changes. You're welcome?


1. The Numbers Predict The Season. Last May, I calculated a standard Pythagorean projection which stated UK was poised to win 5.5 games in the 2015 season. It turned out to be pretty accurate. After running the numbers (points scored for and against) from the 2015 season, UK projects to win 5.3 games in 2016. This is the result of UK winning every game but one by a single-score, and suffering two real blowouts. That divisor comes with a lethal quickness.

Want some hope after reading that? The projection was a mixed bag in predicting the SEC East this season. It's not Gospel.

2. Pass-Rushers Apply Within. This season UK had 10 fewer sacks and 12 fewer tackles for loss (TFL) than in 2014 and those numbers weren't impressive in the SEC to start. The most disruptive defensive linemen in 2015 was graduating senior CJ Johnson who was first in TFL and second in sacks. The team leader in sacks is departing senior and inside linebacker Josh Forrest. Next year's production has to come from someone new.

Ideally, UK will have three reliable pass-rushers spread among the interior and exterior of the line. Based off 2015's production, returning outside linebackers Jason Hatcher and Denzil Ware will pick up some of the slack, but there isn't anyone returning on the inside who immediately leaps off the page.

A potential candidate is JUCO transfer Courtney Miggins who had a subpar first season production-wise while the other JUCO defensive lineman Alvonte Bell redshirted. Encouragingly, under defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, second year JUCO defensive linemen have seen an uptick in their production (e.g. Za'Darius Smith, Melvin Lewis, and CJ Johnson). UK will need Miggins and Bell to make the leap too.

Far too often in 2015, UK had to blitz their linebackers to generate pressure, which put additional pressure on a young secondary. One shouldn't expect UK's third down prevention percentage to drop next season if they are still rushing five or more players on passing downs.

3. The Hardest Hit Position. The graduation of Josh Forrest, Ryan Flannigan, and Khalid Henderson leaves a gaping chest wound at the inside linebacker position for now. True freshman Jordan Jones showed promise in meaningful reps early in the season, but he was the only returning inside linebacker to see game action this season. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love has been on campus and practicing with the team for close to year now which provides some reassurance.  Nico Firios would have probably seen game action this year if not for an early-season injury. Little is known about whom else UK has stewing at this position, but they are all inexperienced underclassmen.

4. Rinse; Repeat? This season saw primarily three offensive tackles getting reps between graduating Jordan Swindle, Kyle Meadows, and true freshman George Asafo-Adjei. Next season, Cole Mosier will probably still get reps at tackle given depth at the guard position, but UK will need JUCO transfer Tate Leavitt to contribute early for depth if not outright start. Luckily, Leavitt is reportedly an early enrollee who will have eight months to prepare with the team prior to the season kicking off. Last summer's departures of redshirt freshmen Josh Krok and Nick Richardson contributes to the assumption UK could be thin again at the offensive tackle position in 2016.

5. Receivers Bouncing Back. UK was led in receiving by four sophomores this season. Last spring, I projected a step back among the outside receivers while thinking the inside receivers would have big seasons. This wasn't entirely accurate. Despite the high-profile drops, Dorian Baker went from 19 catches for 199 yards in 2014 to 55 catches and 608 yards in 2015. Inside receiver Garrett Johnson also saw his production increase from 2014 to 2015.

In 2016, UK will need bigger gains from the rest of its receiver fleet. Blake Bone and Jeff Badet didn't make comparable gains this year, and despite increased competition hampering production, Ryan Timmons had a subpar season. CJ Conrad had a promising freshman season with 15 receptions for 149 yards.  That was more than Blake Bone last season, and the seven tight end receptions from 2014.

I like UK's core of Baker, Johnson, and Conrad going forward. Coupled with a strong running back corps those are some weapons at Drew Barker's disposal. At the same time, there will be lots of underclassmen playing meaningful minutes again next season. The offensive line looks to be stronger, and the running backs continue to be solid. The secondary returns some experience, and arguably the best athletes on the team.

At the end of the day, though, any advancements they make will be judged relative to their SEC competition.