It seemed as if we would never get here, but Kentucky Wildcat football is just around the corner. Luckily the Big Blue Nation's hunger for UK sports was temporarily satisfied with the basketball team's trip to the Bahamas. But now that the games have been played and the team is safely back stateside, it's time to focus entirely on football.
This is Mark Stoops' second year at the helm along with Neal Brown at offensive and DJ Eliot as defensive coordinators. After last season's somewhat disappointing 2-10 redux of 2012, the staff is confident that the product on the field will be much improved due to vigorous winter workouts, new talent, and more understanding of the systems that the coaches have put in place.
But before Kentucky fans get too giddy, continued growing pains will still be a part of this process. The depth still isn't there at some positions and the team is one of the youngest in college football. Oh and there is that pesky SEC schedule that can always be counted on to pile up injuries and losses midway through the season.
That being said, improvement is to be expected in both the win column and the product on the field. I have some important questions about this team that I hope will be answered in a positive way this season.
What will a Patrick Towles-run offense look like?
Towles was officially named the starter; therefore he will be taking all the reps with the first team offense while Drew Barker and Reese Phillips handle things with the second and third string. Remember that Towles was Drew Barker before Drew Barker. He was a Northern Kentucky consensus four star quarterback with offers from Arkansas, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Vanderbilt. His commitment to Kentucky gave Joker Phillips a rare diamond in his recruiting class. Towles is known for his size and arm strength. He is sneaky with his legs and is deceptively athletic. But after showing a few flashes his freshman year, he was sidelined with an injury and then failed to beat out Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow during his sophomore season. Rumors started flying that he couldn't grasp Brown's playbook and had little interest in doing so. Then Drew Barker committed to the ‘Cats, and Towles was all but given his transfer papers by the fan base.
Instead of giving up, he worked out the kinks in his game during the offseason. His release is quicker and he dedicated himself to learning the offense. The hard work paid off and now the offense is his to run. Towles has the ability to make all of the throws that a Neal Brown quarterback has to make. He can chuck the ball downfield and can be accurate in the short passing game. Ever since he was named as the starter, Towles has appeared to have made long strides and has had the best practices of his career. His arm strength and accuracy should give Kentucky something they haven't had since Andre Woodson. But will make the right decisions during the games, and perhaps even more importantly, will he stay healthy?
Who are going to be the go-to-guys at receiver?
Ryan Timmons seems to be the guy that the coaches are banking on for big plays. While Timmons has the ability to rip off for yardage, his damage will be done more by getting yards after the catch off of screens and in the middle of the field. Who will be the down the field targets?
Rashad Cunningham has been making waves at practice. He is a big 6'4 junior that looked to have a promising season last year before an injury cut that short. He provides a big, athletic target for Towles. Javess Blue is in his second year as a JUCO transfer and expectations are high. Two freshmen that have impressed in camp are Blake Bone and Dorian Baker. Bone is a 6'5" receiver that has the ability to go up and grab balls over defenders. I can see some fade passes in the corner of the end zone in his future. The word on Baker is that the kid can flat out make plays. Whether it is catching a deep ball in stride or making a circus catch, he is going to be hard to keep off of the field.
Who is going to carry the ball for the ‘Cats?
As long as the offense line can move the line, the Wildcats should be able to run wild on some teams. The deepest position on offense has to be the running backs. Jojo Kemp was close to having a breakout season during his freshman campaign, but bone spurs in his feet limited his mobility at times. He's a deceptively strong inside runner and can and break outside with excellent speed.
Josh Clemons is finally healthy after two seasons of injuries. He is another back with good speed and size. We have a small samples size of what Clemons can do, but the coaching staff is very excited about what he can bring to the team.
Braylon Heard is the four star transfer from Nebraksa. Heard was ranked as the number two player coming out of the state of Ohio as a senior in high school and the number three ranked athlete in the nation. He could be the starter when UT Martin comes to town.
Mikel Horton is another four star running back out of the state of Ohio. He is a change of pace from the previous mentioned running backs as he is a hulking 6'1, 230 pounds. While the other running backs have speed combined with a little size, Horton is a bowling ball behind the line.
Stanley "Boom" Williams was at one time ranked as the top all-purpose back in the nation. He has been earning rave reviews during camp as a highlight-reel machine. He is almost the forgotten man in the running back corps. And that is a scary prospect.
Kentucky can ground and pound or beat their opponents with speed. Neal Brown has a real treasure trove of players to work with at this position. It will also help that all five starting linemen for the ‘Cats will be clocking in over 300 lbs. Last season only two of the five met that mark.
Which guys on defense not named Za'Darius Smith or Bud Dupree will step up on defense?
Jason Hatcher is the obvious choice here. He played in a number of games last season and showed why he was such a highly sought after recruit by schools such as Southern Cal. Hatcher is a player that is a bit of a hybrid. He can put his hand in the dirt and be a rush end or he can stand up and be a linebacker. This will be essential as there are questions at the linebacker position.
Regie Meant and Matt Elam will be given opportunities to play at the defensive line. Meant has been nothing short of a beast in camp while Elam is more ready to play than the coaching staff had previously thought. If they are able to stuff up the line then the linebackers will find their jobs much easier.
Speaking of linebackers, Ryan Flannigan hasn't been on campus for very long but the dedication and the athleticism of the JUCO transfer has been recognized by the coaches. He is starting to elevate himself at the position and may be a game day starter when it is all said and done next Saturday.
Which SEC games look the most winnable?
The coaching staff won't come out and put a number on success in regards to wins this season. But one has to think that there must be a conference win somewhere in there this season. Two seasons without an SEC win is embarrassing enough. Three straight seasons is inexcusable.
With a slate that includes Florida on the road, Vandy at home, South Carolina at home, LSU on the road, MSU at home, at Mizzou, Georgia at home, and at Tennessee, the SEC football gods again aren't looking too kindly on the ‘Cats. That being said, I could see three wins here.
Vanderbilt is going to be down with the departure of James Franklin and his entire recruiting class. Kentucky gets them after a bye week and realistically should be 3-1 after that game. The Gamecocks are a lot of experts' pick to come out of the east but they have question marks at key positions. Missouri also lost a great deal due to the NFL draft, graduation, and transfers, but Matty Mauck played nicely there at times. Mississippi State is again a dark horse contender out of the west, but we've heard that song play for the past two seasons. Kentucky almost beat them on the road last season with a team that was inferior to what they should have this season. Tennessee is still in rebuilding mode, but I like their talent better than ours and Kentucky hasn't won in Knoxville in forever. Forget at LSU and at Georgia. Florida could be a shocker for the ‘Cats but I've been burned by that line of thinking too many times to seriously consider it once again.
The ‘Cats get out of the SEC with three wins this season: Vandy, Mississippi State and Missouri.
I have more questions but these are the ones in the front of my mind at the moment. What questions do you have about this year's team? Let's discuss in the comment section.