*This preview appears in the ESPN 680 Football Magazine.
It was a historic season for the 2018 Kentucky Football team, as they were able to win 10 games and score a victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. It was the breakthrough year that Cats fans have been pining for ever since Mark Stoops took the job at UK.
On top of the 10 wins and the Bowl victory, fans were treated to the first victory over the Florida Gators since 1986 as well as watching Josh Allen and Benny Snell break records at their respective positions. After the season, multiple Wildcats were drafted to various NFL teams with Josh Allen being the highlight as a first-round draft pick.
With all of the success of 2018, one would think that media personalities and beat writers would start to buy into the Cats just a little bit. But as we saw at SEC Media Days, they weren’t ready to give Stoops and his team a bump as the media picked the Cats to finish sixth in the East, only ahead of Vanderbilt.
So as usual, Mark Stoops is chisling a chip onto the shoulder of his team and his staff. Once again, he is able to play the “They don’t respect us” card. This tactic has been successful during the last three seasons, which were all bowl seasons for Stoops.
But will that ploy work this season?
There are reasons to believe that the Cats will take a step back, considering the facts that the entire starting secondary is gone, the best defensive player in the history of the program is gone, and the best running back in the history of the program is gone.
Prognosticating that UK will not follow up a 10-win season with yet another 10-win season isn’t preposterous. What’s preposterous is picking teams like Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina ahead of Kentucky. There will be a drop off, but it will not be as significant or as doom and gloom as many of the media members are guessing.
There are plenty of questions around this team, there’s no doubt, but if Stoops wants to maintain the momentum, then he better have guys to step in and fill holes like the upper echelon of college football teams have season after season.
Who are the returning players that Mark Stoops is relying on to keep the train on the tracks in 2019?
Quarterback: Unlike most of the previous years under the Stoops tenure we have complete clarity in regards to the starting quarterback position. This is Terry Wilson’s job and it’s his offense. The success of Wilson is paramount if the Kentucky Wildcats want to approach a successful sequel to 2018.
Terry Wilson struggled at times during his first season out of JUCO but one cannot argue the 10-win record. While Wilson only threw for 1,889 yards, 11 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, there were times when he looked the part of an SEC quarterback. His athleticism added a dimension that now transferred back-up Gunnar Hoak did not have.
Now with Hoak gone, Wilson won’t have to look over his shoulder, nor will he have to hear fans calling for him to be benched. The offense will ride or die with Terry Wilson for better or worse. The logical take is that there will be a jump for Wilson in Year 2 at UK. His arm strength isn’t an issue, but his accuracy most certainly is a question. But that should improve as the speed of the game shouldn’t affect him as much.
With Gunnar Hoak’s departure the question of Wilson’s back-up is a legitimate one. Grad transfer Sawyer Smith is the leader in the clubhouse for that position. He went 5-2 at Troy last season as a starter and has legitimate college football experience. The rest of the QB roster is filled with untested freshmen and sophomores.
The health and improvement of Terry Wilson is the most important conversation when talking about the Kentucky offense.
Running Backs: It’s going to be difficult to replace the production of Benny Snell. When the game was close and on the line at the end of the fourth quarter the offensive strategy was to feed the ball to Snell and let him close out the game. It was wildly successful as the UK running back wore down opposing defenses one yard at a time.
While junior AJ Rose is the heir to Snell, it is likely that Eddie Gran will rely on a running back by committee style of offense.
Rose has the most experience out of the backs with 71 attempts, 442 yards, five touchdowns and an average of 6.2 yards per carry in 2018. At 6’1 and 210 pounds, Rose is a physically impressive player, but he isn’t the battering ram that Snell was for UK. Rose has more speed and better breakaway ability.
Behind Rose are redshirt freshmen Christopher Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke. Each player saw time on the field in 2018, and both scored a touchdown. Rodriguez is more like Snell than the other backs for the Cats and is your prototypical short-yardage player. Smoke is a 225-pounder with the ability to turn on the jets in the open field.
While being tasked with replacing an all-time great UK player, I believe in the UK running backs as the premier position for the Cats in 2019.
Wide Receiver: This conversation starts and ends with Lynn Bowden. The electric junior utility guy broke out in 2018 with 67 receptions for 745 yards and five touchdowns. Bowden is the rare player that will line up anywhere on the field and is a threat no matter where he is on the football field.
The problem is that Bowden is no longer a secret, and SEC defenses will be keying on him. Which wide receiver(s) will compliment Bowden? It’s been a while since Kentucky had a legit 1-2 punch at this position.
Juniors Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali have to step up. Last season was supposed to be their year, but neither guy really lit it up. Maybe Gran’s offensively philosophy contributed to their lack of production, because the playbook was geared towards Snell’s and Wilson’s legs with Bowden sprinkled here and there.
Epps is out for for the start of the season with a foot injury, but he will be back eventually. Until then, Ali and someone else will have to take the wide receiver two position.
With the supposed improvement of Terry Wilson, the Cats are looking to open it up a little more in the passing game. It’s going to be put up or shut up for Ali and Epps in 2019.
But don’t count out redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver, who turned heads in the Spring Game with eight grabs for 105 yards and a touchdown.
”He’s one of the young guys that can emerge as a playmaker,” said Mark Stoops following the Spring Game. “He’s a big, strong guy that can run and catch. So, he’s got to continue to work really hard to put it all together.”
Terry Wilson also thinks Oliver can do big things in this offense.
”He’s been looking really good,” said Wilson. “It just feels like when he gets around to the learning curve and learns more about the game, he’ll be solid.”
Between Ali, Oliver and Epps, expect at least one of them to step up and become a consistent threat across from Bowden.
Tight End: CJ Conrad is in the NFL, and UK fans still don’t believe they saw the best of the former four-star recruit. Once again, the style of offense that the Cats wanted to run was more conducive for a blocking tight end than it was for a wide receiver style tight end.
Justin Rigg will replace Conrad as the starter. The 6’6 263 pound junior could be poised to have a big season for the Cats. He has the ability to be a blocker but he’s also a big short yardage target for Terry Wilson.
Once again, the maturation and improvement of Wilson will dictate whether or not Gran will be able to utilize the tight end position as more of a blocker or a legitimate offensive threat.
Offensive Line: It will be difficult to replace Bunchie Stallings and George Asafo Adjei but the O-Line appears to be in good shape.
Left tackle Landon Young will be returning from the torn ACL he suffered before he played one game last season. Drake Jackson is being talked up as the best center in the SEC, and Logan Stenberg could be an All-SEC caliber player at guard for the Cats.
There is depth and experience at the rest of the spots at offensive line for UK. The question will be if they will be able to pass block as well as they run block. The one weakness of the line last season was their lack of ability to give Wilson ample time to survey the field. But the return of Landon Young at the left tackle position should provide an immediate boost for the pass blocking.
Defensive Line: If there is one position on the defense that should not take a step back, and in fact should be better, is the defensive line. Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, Phil Hoskins, Calvin Taylor Jr. and Kordell Looney are all upperclassmen, and all of them have plenty of game experience.
A big piece to the d-line puzzle is sophomore Joshua Paschal. He was sidelined for the majority of the year due to a malignant melanoma on his foot. Paschal did in fact play at the end of the season, though he wasn’t in the best of shape. This season should be his breakthrough, as he will enter the Toledo game healthy and 100% ready to roll.
The d-line is as deep as it has been under Mark Stoops.
Linebacker: There’s no way to replace Josh Allen, so time won’t be wasted explaining how the Cats intend to do that. Instead, taking a look at some good returning talent that should make Kentucky fans feel pretty good about this position.
The leader of the defense, and possibly the heart and soul of the team, is Kash Daniel. The Kentucky native is entering his senior year and is poised to have the season of his life. Daniel grew into a leadership role last season and is looking to expand on that even more. While he’s not overly fast, he gets into the right place at the right time, and he’s not afraid to lay a lick on an offensive opponent.
Sophomore Chris Oats had an impressive freshman season and was able to fill in through injuries and suspensions for other linebackers. His talent is off the charts, and during the Texas A&M game, he was the best linebacker on the field not named Josh Allen.
Other young talented players that fans should be excited about are sophomore Deandre Square, high-profile freshman recruit J.J. Weaver, junior Jamar “Boogie” Watson,and transfer Xavier Peters.
Peters is a four-star recruit, an Under Armour All American, and a freak athlete that could make a huge impact for UK at inside linebacker. After initially committing to Kentucky, Peters opted to play a season at Florida State. Peters decided to come back to UK and give it a go, though the NCAA has yet to decide if they’ll grant him a waiver to play this season.
Like the d-line, the linebacker core is talented and deep.
Defensive Back: This is the biggest question mark on the team. Davonte Robinson was the one upperclassman at safety that played meaningful meaning for the Cats last season. Unfortunately, he tore his quad before practice even started and is out for the season.
So, who in the world is playing defensive back for Kentucky? Jordan Griffin is a senior safety that will have to replace Robinson. Even though he is a senior, he was behind Robinson on the depth chart.
Cedrick Dort, Quandre Mosely, amd Brandin Echols are all players that will see the field. The problem is nobody knows how good these guys are because they’ve never really played in games before.
There are big shoes to fill in the defensive secondary. Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, Lonnie Johnson, Darius West, and Chris Westry were all extremely good for Kentucky, and all of them are gone. If there is a glaring weakness on the team, it could be the secondary.
Fans will have to trust that Stoops has stacked talent, and as a secondary expert, should be able to coach those guys up.
Special Teams: Returning punter Max Duffy had a great season in 2018 and will be looking to be a possible All-SEC candidate. The Australian footballer’s rugby kicking style proved to be extremely effective for Kentucky, and he was quite the weapon for the defense.
The big question is who is going to kick the field goals for the Cats?
Grant McKinnis was tasked with the job last season, and his efforts were less than effective. Fans called for then true freshman Chance Poore to be given a chance, but Stoops opted to keep his redshirt and play him sparingly.
Now the job seems to be Poore’s to lose. He is a big time recruit (for a kicker) and could provide Kentucky with another offensive weapon that they lacked last season.
Expect fireworks from Lynn Bowden as he returns punts and kickoffs this season. He took a punt to the house last season and should be the most dangerous return man in the SEC.
Summary: While there are questions on this team, fans shouldn’t be down in their expectations. With Kentucky’s schedule, there’s no reason to not expect them to go 7-5 or 8-4. Anything less than that should be a disappointment with the amount of talent returning and the depth on the team at every position outside of the defensive secondary.
Once again, it’s time for Stoops and company to prove people wrong.