The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On Saturday night, the University of Kentucky unveiled the new Commonwealth Stadium and the 2015 version of Wildcat Football. With an undoubtedly enhanced look and some fine new bells and whistles, Commonwealth made a great initial impression. Likewise, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like a vastly improved squad for about two and a half quarters.
As the night progressed, however, questions became more prevalent than answers. I wish I could say we'd learned more, but here are a few things I'm sure of.
1. Patrick Towles must be more consistent for the Cats to go bowling. You don't have to be SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy to know Towles had a literally up and down year in 2014. After looking like a first-round draft for the first six games, Patrick regressed in the second half of the season. Though he was far from bad, he wasn't accurate enough for UK's offense to get into the kind of rhythm it needed to succeed in the SEC.
Towles's night on Saturday was a microcosm of 2014, with the main problem being it was against a Sun Belt defense. Obviously, 6 of 16 in the second half isn't going to cut it. I can give Towles a bit of a break for the overall percentage being so low (16/34 for 47.1%). Kentucky had a clear game plan on Saturday, which was to go vertical. There were not a lot of curls, crossing routes or screens.
The idea was to use their SEC athletes to get separation and to use multiple deep routes to try to discourage safety help. It would have been hard for Towles or anyone to complete 70% or even 65% of his passes. Still, Kentucky cannot win SEC games if or when he plays as poorly as he did in the second half, especially because. . . .
2. UK has a ton of talent at Wide Receiver. Between Garrett Johnson, Jeff Badet, Ryan Timmons, Blake Bone and Dorian Baker, we're looking at four sophomores and a junior. In terms of Kentucky Football, this is historic depth and talent. Whether this adds up to historic production is going to hinge on a number of things beyond their control.
But the fact is, UK has guys who can get separation, use leaping ability, range and/or hands to get to 50/50 balls, and can make exciting things happen after the catch. And that will be the case for the next 2-3 years. I've been wrong before, but I think this group will continue to show very well against all but perhaps the tippy top of SEC defenses.
With Boom Williams around to keep everyone honest, there are going to be chances for a lot of big plays this year and in the future. Needless to say, this makes the need to Towles to evolve all the more urgent.
3. Kentucky's offense left several clubs in the bag. As I alluded to earlier, UK had a pretty clear game plan again Louisiana-Lafayette. We'll see several more layers added before the year is over, at least some of which should happen right away. Saturday saw no Wildcat and only one designed run for Towles. After a summer where we heard a lot about true Freshman TE C.J. Conrad, not only was he not targeted, he spent most of his time as an H-Back in a diamond backfield. There's a lot more planned for him.
4. J.D. Harmon is a man. In every sense of the word. Every non-starter in America from pee-wee all the way to the NFL is told to be ready because he never knows when his time might come. Sounds easy. It isn't. It could have been especially difficult for Harmon given how he'd gotten to this point.
Coming to UK as a walk-on, Harmon was a starter at corner by the end of his true freshman year. He led the team in interceptions with 2 (in case you've forgotten, we really sucked in 2012). He lost 2013 to academic ineligibility. A lot of kids would have transferred or given up at that point.
With his eligibility restored in 2014, he was singled out by Mark Stoops at one point for his lack of effort on special teams. He entered this year behind true freshman Chis Westry on the depth chart. That could not have been easy to swallow. Though Kentucky finished the first half with a commanding 24-7 lead, things could have been a lot tighter.
As it turned out, it's a good thing they weren't. Kentucky has Harmon to thank. With ULL driving in the first quarter, the junior replaced Westry for a spell, and within two plays made a ridiculously athletic strip of the football after an 18-yard completion to the Kentucky 10. Later, he high pointed an interception on the Kentucky 19 with a minute left in the half to preserve the eventual halftime margin.For good measure, Harmon added a 60-yard kickoff return in the second half.
Aside from what this kind of reaction says about Harmon personally, it also says something about the coaching staff. The Joker Philips era seemed marred by kids who got discouraged and lost interest. The fact that Harmon was capable of this type of performance in what was probably a tough day for him would seem to augur well for the attitude of this team.
5. Commonwealth Stadium is not yet in mid-season form. If I'm being honest, while the overall aesthetic is great, I was a little underwhelmed otherwise. Between the game clock and play clock failures and the atrocious concession lines, UK still needs to iron the kinks out.
Moreover, the changes to the stadium felt less like an enhancement of my game experience and more like a constant reminder that I am a member the 99%. I could see being really psyched about the improvements if I could afford to sit in the Club Level or was accompanying my son to the recruiting room on an unofficial visit.
Since neither of those things appear likely, I'm not sure how much I care. Or, as my friend Mike put it today, "Every time the lights hits those suites, I could see all the Woodford Reserve bottles on the shelves, and it just kind of bummed me out."
Follow me on Twitter @AlexScutchfield