Coming off of their first bowl berth in 6 years and a surprising 7-5 record, the Kentucky Wildcats looked to take a step forward in 2017. While they did once again reach a bowl game and had a big rivalry win over Tennessee, the season was somewhat underwhelming with a very disappointing loss to a flailing Florida team and a failure to get to 8 or 9 wins.
2018 is a golden opportunity for the Wildcats, returning several at skill positions and getting back as many as 3 guys on the defensive side of the ball that could have gone to the NFL Draft.
After the dust of signing day and spring practice has settled, there are still several questions that need to be answered.
1. Who will be THE quarterback?
When Touchdown Terry Wilson chose Kentucky back in December, he was all but crowned the starter by fans and the media. It played a large role in Drew Barker’s decision to leave the team and ultimately the game of football. But after spring practice, that picture may not be quite as clear.
Redshirt sophomore Gunner Hoak had an outstanding spring game, looking like a strong pocket passer that could move when needed. Everyone around the program has been impressed by his improvement and production.
Wilson looked strong as well, tearing up the defense with his legs as well as his arm. He would definitely be a tough QB to game plan against.
Ultimately, we could see Stoops using both guys depending on the situation. But as much as I hate the 2 quarterback system, I really hope a permanent starter is named early in the fall.
While it will be impossible to replace all that Stephen Johnson meant to the team over the last two years, I do feel like the Wildcats are in good hands with either Wilson or Hoak.
Who do you think will get the nod?
2. Will the defense meet expectations?
Mark Stoops is known for defense. He got the offer to coach at Kentucky based on his work as the defensive coordinator at Florida State University, where he finished with top 5 defenses nationally in his last two seasons there.
Since arriving at Kentucky, the Wildcats defense has never been ranked higher than 59th and finished at No. 92 last season. Kentucky returns 8 starters to the defense, including Josh Allen, Jordan Jones, and Mike Edwards who all could have gone to the NFL.
Even so, with Denzil Ware announcing his transfer from Kentucky on Thursday there will need to be some younger guys that step up and lead.
Kentucky will need junior linebacker Kash Daniel to step up in a leadership role, and will look to sophomores Joshua Paschal and Boogie Watson to make a large impact.
If the defense steps up the challenge, Kentucky could find itself winning 8 or more games for the first time since 2007.
3. Who will step up at wide receiver?
One complaint over the last few years in Lexington has been the development of the wide receiving corps, which is likely why we saw the departure off receivers coach Lamar Thomas during the off-season.
Explosive sophomore Lynn Bowden undoubtedly has a ton of potential, but Eddie Gran was often criticized for under-utilizing him last season. It is possible Bowden could play in the slot, in the backfield, and maybe even take some snaps from quarterback this year.
Senior Dorian Baker missed all of the 2017 season with an ankle injury, but is expected to be a huge contributor and leader this year.
Tavin Richardson is the one guy on the team that made big plays last season, and he has the best numbers of anyone returning to the receiving unit.
One key may be whether or not any freshmen are able to produce. Will Josh Ali and Akeem Hayes be ready to contribute immediately? If so, this could be a dangerous group.
One thing is for certain: the talent is there. But will this group step up and help a new quarterback find his way in the SEC?
4. Is A.J. Rose who we think he is?
Stephen Johnson was second on the team in rushing last season as the running back reserves failed to provide a viable backup option to Benny Snell.
A.J. Rose only had 15 carries for 37 yards for the entire season, but there was a completely different A.J. Rose that showed up for the Blue-White Spring Game. He rushed for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 carries against that veteran defense I talked about earlier.
If Rose can shoulder even a small share of the load, Benny Snell will be more fresh to punish opponents late in games. Kentucky has often ridden Snell to victory, and while he has never seemed to run out of steam it would be nice to know someone else is waiting to contribute when he needs a break.
Or in case another official tries to help him up.
Sihiem King was sidelined with a concussion for the game, but his quick running style will also be an important change of pace for the offense when he is able to get back on the field.
If the answers to these questions go Kentucky’s way this season, it could be a fun ride. Despite a challenging schedule, there is excitement around the program heading into the season and the coaching staff seems confident in their personnel.
Could this be the year they break through and content for the top spot in the SEC East?