Kentucky football's offense improved last season by just about every metric; albeit there wasn't anywhere to go but up. 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:
- 2013: 21 points per game; yards per play 5.29; 341 yards per game; F/+ -3.3% ranked 74th
- 2014: 29.2 points per game; yards per play 5.43; 384 yards per game; F/+ -1.9% ranked 69th
Unfortunately, the improvement was not enough to overcome a defense that did not improve relative to the 2013 campaign. This year Shannon Dawson will be calling the plays, and he'll have more weapons than Neal Brown originally inherited. I do suspect UK's offensive ratings will improve yet again this year. By how much is, indeed, the rub.
The quarterback competition will receive a lot of headlines this year just like last year, but this time round it'll be a two horse race with Reese Phillips injury keeping him out of spring practice. The result will be Patrick Towles and Drew Barker getting all the reps, and I expect it to be competitive. Last October, it would have been silly to project anyone but Towles to be the starter. He had improved his fundamentals, and his accuracy had started to catch up with his natural arm strength. Then the last month of the season hit, and Towles performances steadily declined to the point he was only averaging roughly 150 yards passing per game. Those were four of the best defenses UK faced all year, but bad fundamentals also crept into his play, and his confidence seemed shot by the time the Governor's Cup rolled around.
Poised to capitalize is redshirt freshman Drew Barker. Fans haven't seen Barker take live reps since last year's spring game when he played pretty well for a true freshman against defense that played a lot of back-ups. His development since then is a mystery to everyone on the outside, but more should be learned this month.
Shannon Dawson will almost certainly open up the competition, and give both individuals ample opportunity to earn a starting job. I expect it to be competitive and would be a fool to speculate which one comes out the winner. I do feel confident judging that no matter who gets named the starter either in April or August, he will be on a shorter leash than Patrick Towles was on at any point last season.
UK lost starter Braylon Heard to the NFL Draft, and Josh Clemons to transfer, leaving one of UK's deepest positions to a shallow one. Former player Dyshawn Mobley's transfer to Eastern Kentucky hurts even more in hindsight. On the plus side, UK returns its leading rusher Stanley Williams who earned that honorific with a 100 yard plus game against UofL. He's the odds on favorite to lead UK in rushing and all-purpose yards again this season barring injury. How Dawson decides to use Williams in the running and passing game will be interesting to watch.
Kemp also had a solid sophomore year, though his production tailed off after his stellar game against South Carolina when he ran for 130 yards and three touchdowns. Kemp was the most comfortable running the ball out of the Wildcat, but that formation limited UK's credible options making it easier to defend. Kemp has a good enough combination of strength and speed that he can be an every down back, but he must become more patient running the ball and a be better blocker so he can see the field on passing downs.
Mike Horton, like Drew Barker, is somewhat of a mystery though he had an excellent prep pedigree and has one year in the program. He only averaged 5 carries per game last season, and was pretty clearly the fourth string running back by the middle of the season. Nonetheless, his 5 yards per carry average is impressive for a true freshman, and the physical running back is another promising young player.
The depth at this position is somewhat worrisome, especially considering UK only signed one running back in the 2015 Class and he won't arrive on campus until late June. These three will have to carry the load for most, if not all, of next season. That's a lot to ask of a three man running back rotation as this position will get beat up as the season progresses. Teams usually give quarterbacks no contact jerseys for practice, and it's too bad they can't reasonably be given out for running backs in UK's case.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
UK loses Javess Blue, Demarco Robinson, Steven Borden, and Ronnie Shields but returns everyone else to the receiver and tight end positions. Robinson and Blue were both dependable starters, and this year Dorian Baker and Blake Bone probably lead to take over their starting spots. Another big contributor, and the team's leading receiver, Ryan Timmons also returns for his junior season. Those three players proved to be play-makers at time last season, but were each inconsistent to varying degrees. The three of them need to be more consistent this season so that the offense can stay balanced and effective.
Alexander Montgomery and Jeff Badet were each poised to contribute last season, but a string of injuries kept them out and resulted in them redshirting. Badet caught 22 passes his freshman year, and Montgomery caught 16 despite only playing in 7 games. If healthy, both of these guys will see a lot of game action and will compete for starting positions.
TV Williams, Garrett Johnson, Joey Herrick, Rashad Cunningham, and Thaddeus Snodgrass can't be forgotten either. Williams saw some game action last season, Johnson was the star of the UK-Florida game, and Herrick started a few games despite only catching 8 passes. Cunningham has all the physical tools to be a great receiver, but hasn't seen the field much during his time in Lexington. In spring ball we should find out which of this group is ready to break into the top tier of UK's receivers, or at least get an idea of the physical maturation last year's freshmen undertook.
UK has no depth at tight end, and will have an over-reliance on young Darryl Long and CJ Conrad. Nebraska transfer Greg Hart will be useful next season, but this year UK will have to figure out how to get by with just two scholarship tight ends. Long is a mystery given his redshirt last season, but spring practice will give the public an opportunity to see his maturation. It will be interesting to see how UK uses tight ends this year given the physical limitations those players will have.
Unlike last season, the wide receiver corps did not need an incoming freshman to enroll early. This position went from one with depth issues to now being one of the deepest positions on the entire team. The loss of Robinson and Blue was effectively cancelled out by the return of Montgomery and Badet. These are all players capable of delivery explosive plays, and most of them proved that last season.
I'm 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.
If you find yourself at a UK practice, maybe spend an extra minute watching the receiver group.
The offensive line lost one starter in tackle Darrian Miller, but all other starters return including key back-ups at the guard position. Last season the offensive line improved somewhat over the 2013 season, but obviously can still improve. The hope is more competition will hopefully make all the players better. The offensive line depth chart now has the bodies required for SEC play, but unlike the skill positions, these players need several years of physical maturation to reach their potential. UK currently has the bodies, but it may be another year or two before the offensive line becomes a strength. The foundation has been laid though.
Jordan Swindle is moving from right tackle to left tackle, and he is the only offensive player I feel 99.9% will be a starter next season. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Meadows is probably the leading contender for the starting right tackle spot heading into spring ball. Meadows will have to fend off the likes of redshirt freshmen Nick Richardson and Josh Krok, possibly even Jarrett LaRubbio if he also made the move to tackle. Krok is probably the left tackle of the future based on measurables, and it would be encouraging if he earns Swindle's understudy role. That would allow less cross-training for Meadows and the other right tackles.
Offensive guard is one of the offense's deepest positions. Ramsey Meyers and Zach West started most of the games last year, but Cole Mosier and Nick Haynes proved themselves enough that a four man rotation soon sprouted up. This was a young group last year, but they are entering their third year in the program which should lead to some improvement again next season. This will be another season they all get to play together and meld further, but the outlook for the 2016 season is even more encouraging.
At center Jon Toth returns for his third year playing that position despite originally being signed as a tackle. He'll be backed up by either Jervontius Stallings or Zach Meyers. This is another position battle that won't grab a lot of headlines, but will be interesting to watch nonetheless. If Stallings or Meyers are judged to be just as good as Toth I wonder if the coaches would consider moving him back to tackle. If Toth has a lock on the job I wonder if one of Stallings or Meyers transition to guard. These three all have at least two more years of eligibility left and so there's still time to make a position change.