With the fall practice period finally getting underway on Sunday, the Kentucky Wildcats are ready to finally begin final preparations for the 2017 season.
However, there are numerous questions that need to be answered over the next few weeks, before the team travels to Southern Miss for the season opener. While some are small issues, there are three major questions that many UK fans hope to get an answer for, sooner rather than later.
Is there REALLY a quarterback competition, and if so, who wins?
Look, the odds are very slim that Stephen Johnson will not be the starting quarterback come the season opener. After leading the Wildcats to a 7-6 record, including a win over Louisville, he has earned the starting job.
However, it has repeatedly been stated by Mark Stoops and the rest of the UK coaching staff that it is an “open competition” for the signal caller position over the past few weeks. If this is to be believed, then it opens the door for either maligned Drew Barker or newcomer Gunnar Hoak to take the reins.
Hoak had a terrific spring game, and opened a lot of eyes with his hard, accurate throws and his decision making. While Johnson struggled with a lot of his passes as the offense stalled, Hoak was able to move the team down the field and put points on the board.
Barker, on the other hand, is finally healthy and will want to reclaim the starting job he had when 2016 began, before getting hurt on the first series against Florida. As badly as the game went, it is easy to forget how lethal Barker looked in the first half against Southern Miss. If he were able to regain that swagger and perform like that during fall camp, it could really force the coaching staff to re-consider the depth chart.
Johnson will need to likely show some progression from the spring game, as last season’s performance will not be enough to guarantee him being under center for the first snap of 2017. Will he step up his game, or will he leave the door open for someone else?
What will we see from Lynn Bowden?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, if you’re a UK football fan then you are aware of the hype surrounding one of the most talented players to commit to the Wildcats in a very long time. The third-ranked prospect in the state of Ohio, and a top-200 player nationally according to 247 Sports, Bowden has yet to take the practice field due to being a late enrollee at Kentucky.
That said, those who have seen him working out say he is one of the best they have ever seen on campus in Lexington. “He’s a guy that’s electric,” Stoops said during UK’s kickoff luncheon on Tuesday. “He’s dynamic with the ball in his hands.”
Johnson, at SEC Media Days, made it clear that he could not wait to be on the same field with what many expect to be one of his primary weapons in the passing game. “We’re just waiting for him to get here,” the Kentucky quarterback told reporters. “We’ve all seen his film, we’ve all seen his tape. He’s done a crazy amount of things with the football at his high school. It’s a matter of seeing him on the field when he gets here.”
After scoring 57 touchdowns in his senior year of high school, Bowden will come in with very high expectations—and comparisons to another dynamic player who could play quarterback, running back, and receiver. Whether Bowden offers the dynamic game-breaking ability that Randall Cobb provided the Wildcats, it will be interesting to see how quickly he learns the playbook, if he clicks with the Kentucky quarterbacks, and just how his skill set is utilized in the offensive game-plan this season.
How badly will Kentucky miss Jeff Badet?
When the speedy wideout exited the program earlier this year to become a graduate transfer at Oklahoma, Jeff Badet left a hole in the Wildcats’ passing game that is not easy to fill. His ability to take the top off a defense was vital in Kentucky winning seven games last year, and his 670 receiving yards led the team.
Now, the Wildcats will need some other players to step up and fill that void, especially as teams will look to stack the box against Bennie Snell and the powerful rushing attack. Dorian Baker, Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone, and others will have to become more consistent to offset the loss of Badet. However, the questions remains—can they?
Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his three years at Kentucky, but he has not been a consistent performer. Whether that is down to game planning, quarterback play, or his own performance on the field, Johnson will have a monster game one week, and then fail to record a catch the next.
After leading the Wildcats in receiving yardage as a sophomore and receptions as a junior, he will need to record considerably more than the 39 catches he managed in 2016 for the passing attack to be a serious threat. If he can have more games like he did against Louisville—when he caught five passes for 164 yards and two scores—then things will be a lot easier for Eddie Gran and company.
Baker has been one of the most frustrating Wildcat players in recent memory. Injuries last year caused him to record only fourteen catches, and he has recorded only slightly more than one thousand yards over three years. However, his numbers have been impacted by his biggest weakness—drops.
Not only has Baker struggled to keep the ball in his hands at times, it seems like he has dropped passes at the most crucial points. In fact, Kentucky likely would have gone to a bowl game in 2016 had he made a few more catches on the season. Gran has made it a point of emphasis this summer to work with Baker on staying healthy, and he believes that it could be a strong senior year for the receiver. If he can reduce the drops and can help the offense move the chains, Baker could finally realize some of the promise he had coming into the program.
While there are many other question marks that will need to be answered—Will Matt Elam ever show up? Will the defense truly be improved this year?—these are some of the biggest that Wildcat fans will expect an answer to when the team travels to Southern Miss on September 2nd.
What questions do you hope to get an answer to over the next five weeks? Comment with your inquiries below!