With fall camp opening this week, Kentucky Wildcats football fans are rejoicing. It has been a long summer and there haven't been many stories outside of some commitments and some de-commitments, which is a good thing.
Last offseason's antics featuring Drew Barker and members of the Eastern Kentucky's football team aren't what fans want to read about in the summer. The coaches and the players have said all of the right things at UK Media Day, preseason luncheons and at SEC Media Days.
They are exuding a sense of confidence and optimism that may seem puzzling to some coming off another disappointing finish to the season.
With the season on the horizon, there are some issues that I feel pretty good about and some things that give me trepidation.
Reasons to be Optimistic
The New Coaches
I loved all of the hires Mark Stoops made in the off-season, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Last season Kentucky missed a veteran, steady hand at the OC position and Eddie Gran fills that need. He's been a part of this game for a long time and has seen a great deal of success. He has the respect and admiration of Stoops and this is the first time, I believe, that Stoops is completely comfortable with turning the keys over to another coach on offense.
Darin Hinshaw is going to be vital as Gran's right-hand man and Kentucky hasn't had a coach specifically dedicated to the quarterback position. Lamar Thomas is going to bring a level of swagger and accountability to the receivers that hasn't been there in the past. Receivers are known as the biggest divas on the team, but not one of them has an ego that surpasses Thomas'.
And that is exactly the kind of coach they need.
One of the many laments of last season's offensive game plan was the lack of a role for tight ends, specifically Conrad who is one of the best athletes on that side of the ball. On the few occasions he was featured, he did not disappoint and fans were left wondering, "Where the hell has that been all season?"
Gran has made it clear that he will utilize the tight end as more than just a blocker and his history as a coach indicates that this is not lip service. Conrad will be vital to the success of Drew Barker as he is a big, sure-handed target that won't be far from the line of scrimmage for the most part.
If Barker needs an early confidence booster to get into a rhythm, all he needs to do is look for Conrad, drop it to him, and let him do the rest.
Boom Williams had a rocky sophomore campaign with some off the field issues. This season there are even greater expectations as he is getting some pre-season SEC love. He claims to have grown up in the off-season and has dealt with the loss of his sister, something that would make any of us change our perspective in life.
I think he is a good kid with great talent and he will break out to be one of the best running backs in the conference this season. Behind him is emerging star Sihiem King, who has overtaken Mikel Horton as the number three running back for now.
And of course, there is Jojo Kemp. Kemp is a senior leader and one of the toughest players on the team. I didn't think he would be the type of player that Stoops would have taken to SEC Media Days when he was a freshman, but the young man has really made some strides in his career. There is depth and explosiveness at the running back position.
Arguably the best unit on the team, the defensive backs are poised to have a big season. Chris Westry showed us last season as a freshman that he has All-SEC caliber ability. Westry with Derrick Baity, Blake McClain, and Mike Edwards, form a young and talented group that should give wide receivers and quarterbacks fits all season long.
Look, it's not that bad. The 'Cats get Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina at home. Those are three of the more beatable teams in the conference, and the 'Cats get all three of them in Commonwealth. I know they went 1-2 against these three teams last season, but the Bulldogs are going to take a step back, the Vanderbilt game on the road was the tipping point of a failing season, and they beat the Gamecocks on their field last year and that team will be a shadow of the squad from last season.
There's also Missouri going through a rough offseason that saw them just lose two of their biggest defensive lineman. It's probably a toss-up as to whether this or the MSU game will prove more challenging to win, but there's no question both are now very winnable.
If Kentucky can pull off at least three wins from that group, they will definitely go bowling this season.
Reasons to be Pessimistic
The Defensive Line
Matt Elam has to have a big or the defense may be in trouble. There isn't much depth at the defensive line and the onus will be on Elam to be the guy. We have been waiting for Elam to be the guy since he put on that Kentucky helmet on his signing day but so far he has been a bit of a letdown. The good news is he's looked incredible at UK Media Day and no longer looks like a guy simply carrying 350 pounds of weight.
Reggie Meant and Courtney Miggins figure to be on either side of Elam and there isn't a ton of experience between them. Offenses in the SEC are built to run over and pound opposing defenses with big offensive lines and big running backs. If the d-line fails, then that will expose the linebackers and will not allow the d-backs do their jobs.
The line has to be good. I do think Denzil Ware is going to be a monster in the d-end/linebacker combo role.
The Offensive Line
How many times have we heard the offensive line is going to be better and how many times have they not delivered? I'm not buying it until I see it from them. Jon Toth is as good of a center as there is in the country, but what does he have around him? Cole Mosier was decent in relief of Jordan Swindle last season, but JUCO transfer Tate Leavitt was brought in to be the left tackle and rumors are that he isn't close to ready yet.
All of the starters will probably be juniors or seniors and they'll all be over 300 pounds, but will they be up to the task against SEC front sevens?
I'm very happy that Barker is knocking it out of the park in the classroom and in the film room. He certainly does look like he's improved his attitude. But is he any good? It's hard to answer that question with the small sample size that we have from last season, but it didn't leave me feeling great about him.
If there is any player's success that Mark Stoops is tied to, it's Barker. Stoops' success is going to live and die with his QB, but is Barker ready for the challenge? His teammates seem to love him, so that bodes well, and he's drawn praise at every preseason meeting with the media.
But I am still not convinced that he will be the guy to lead Kentucky to where they need to go. I really, really want him to prove me wrong.
The Schedule (Flip Side)
Going to Alabama and Tennessee isn't going to be much fun. Going to Florida and hosting Georgia will be major challenges as usual. And I don't even want to talk about playing at Louisville. I think there are four losses we can pencil in for the 'Cats, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia.
The Louisville game is a likely loss, so that makes five losses I think the 'Cats will probably suffer. Missouri should be worse than last season with all of the change and turmoil surrounding that team, but it's a road game and the 'Cats haven't historically been the best road team.
And that Southern Mississippi game scares the bejeezus out of me just because the implications if they lose are so dire. Once again, there isn't much room for error.
So what do you think? Do you have more reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic? Let me know in the comments section.