10 questions about the Cats

Herald-Leader Staff WriterAugust 24, 2013 

1. Will the fans return to Commonwealth Stadium this season?

It's hard to forget the sight of the vast empty sections of the stadium when Kentucky kicked off against Vanderbilt at the end of last season. You could almost see the players and coaching staff deflate as they ran out of the tunnel on that November afternoon.

Coach Joker Phillips said that was the moment he knew he was going to be fired. Of course, it didn't help that Vanderbilt topped UK 40-0 that day.

The fans voiced their displeasure for three straight losing seasons in a very visible, very public way, with only 18,885 showing up for the game. The average reported attendance for games last season was the lowest since 1996.

But the fans have spoken again by buying more than 6,000 more season tickets than they did last season. And that was a month before the home opener.

Kentucky may still be a little way from selling out its stadium every game, but fans are showing interest in the future of the program again.

2. Would a loss to Western Kentucky in the opener sink the season?

A loss to the Hilltoppers and Bobby Petrino is not the way Coach Mark Stoops wants to start his Kentucky tenure. Most head coaches try to downplay the importance of just one game, but Stoops seemed to understand how necessary it is to get off on the right foot. "That's our first game of this new era of our program," he said. "We have an awful lot on the line. We can't take anything for granted at Kentucky right now. We can't just show up and beat anybody."

A win would be an important confidence boost for UK's players, who called that overtime loss to Western at Commonwealth Stadium last season their most difficult. The game at Nashville's LP Field is key to getting fans into Commonwealth for the season opener the next week, and on board for the brutal four-game stretch that includes four teams ranked in the top 10 nationally.

It's hard to say just one game is a must-win for a new team with new coaches and loads of new players, but the WKU game is a huge one.

3. What returning player could make the biggest impact?

Sure, it could be an offensive player, a quarterback or a running back. But most likely it will be a player on the defensive side of the ball, where Stoops has spent so much of his time this off-season trying to make the unit better.

So my vote is for Alvin "Bud" Dupree. The junior end had to deal with multiple position changes in ever-changing schemes, and he admitted to sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities. He also was overwhelmed by double teams as the Cats' only true pass-rush option last season. That's going to change this season with junior-college transfer Za'Darius Smith on the other side of the line. The dynamic duo could be key cogs in a defensive line that is expected to carry a shaky secondary.

4. What incoming freshman could make the biggest impact?

Both in public and private conversations, coaches are looking at two freshmen wide receivers to become the true playmakers Kentucky has lacked the past couple of seasons. And while all of the incoming freshman wideouts have impressed, it's Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery who have given the coaches the most reason to hope.

At 6-foot-2, Montgomery has the kind of size UK receivers have lacked of late, impressive hands and the ability to run crisp routes even as a freshman. The Weston, Fla., native likes the big stage, reeling in nine passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns in his team's state championship win last season.

Timmons, who could see time in the backfield, at receiver and on returns, has played in this Air Raid system his entire life and could excel early and often in it.

5. What are the chances that all three sophomore quarterbacks play this season?

If the past couple of seasons are any indicator, the chances are pretty good that at least two (if not four) quarterbacks will see action this season, and it might not be because the coaches want to give them all live game reps. For the past two seasons, UK has had a starting quarterback go down, and it's not impossible again this season, especially with youth on the offensive line and veterans playing at new positions.

The difference between this season and last season, though, is that all three sophomore signal-callers — Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow — seem to be well-versed in the system and ready to play if called on. All three have seen live game action and wouldn't be deer-in-the-headlights if they needed to run the offense. All three offer different strengths that could come in handy against varying SEC defenses.

Never rule out that true freshman Reese Phillips will find his way on the field, too. In spring practices and this fall, he impressed coaches and onlookers alike with his accuracy and comfort level running the offense.

6. Who can get the return game going again?

For two straight seasons, Kentucky has gotten zero points from its special teams unit. No touchdowns on punt returns. No trips to the end zone on kickoff returns. Not since Randall Cobb wore blue has UK been able to get good field position regularly or points from that unit. Special teams seems to be a big push under Stoops, though. It has regular rotation in the practice plan and there will be starters on both sides of the ball playing regularly.

By midway through camp, special teams coach Bradley Dale Peveto had nine different players — mostly newcomers and freshmen — that he thought could help the return game. When asked if that meant there was no one special, Peveto disagreed. "Special teams is going to be special," he assured.

On punt returns, the Cats' best options appear to be Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, Timmons and Javess Blue. Kickoff returners could be in flux until midway through the season until UK finds the right fit.

7. Is the secondary as worrisome as some fear?

Junior-college transfer Nate Willis, whose enrollment at UK was delayed as he waited to be cleared, already was penciled in on the two-deep at cornerback before he was actually on campus. That's how shorthanded UK appears to be at that key position. Willis provides some speed and size for a position that was ruled by freshmen and sophomores that were burned for big yardage at times last season. Those guys, like Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller, are back, and if they can stay healthy, they will be assets. Other than Ashely Lowery, there are some serious questions at safety, too.

8. Is Kentucky one key injury away from a crisis?

There have been serious issues for this staff trying to put together depth charts beyond starters at several key positions like linebacker, cornerback and safety. There are similar problems on the other side of the ball. Stoops said he's been waiting for a player to do something special at many of those positions to separate himself from the pack. The "next man up" mantra is still in full use by this staff as it was the previous staff, and they're going to have to live with lesser talent at some positions until more players (especially at key skill positions) get to campus.

9. Can Stoops and staff maintain recruiting momentum if there's a subpar first season?

The 2013 class was UK's highest-rated (since they started keeping track of such things nationally), and the staff had less than 70 days to put it together. The 2014 class, headlined by quarterback Drew Barker, could be the best yet, likely in the top 10 nationally. Even if UK has a bad season, recruits seem committed to the future of UK and Stoops. The 2014 class already seems to be a united group. It helps that there are visible improvements on the horizon at the football facility and stadium.

10. What would make this season a success for Stoops?

With one of the nation's toughest schedules, little depth at several important positions and the bumps in the road that come with learning a new system on both sides of the ball, there won't just be speed bumps this season, there could be some serious road blocks. The record may not look much better this season than it has the past few seasons. Stoops wasn't ready to say what record would signal success, though. "Just improvement, drastic improvement," he said when asked before camp opened. "We're going to go about our business and we're going to grind hard each and every day to make this team better, and we'll see where that goes. We'll talk about that at the end of the year."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service