Kentucky’s special teams coach couldn’t help himself during December bowl practices.
As the Cats prepared for the Music City Bowl, Dean Hood scanned the field the way a kid in Target scans the aisles of the toy section.
“You kind of look around and think, ‘Hmm. Next year I’m going to get this guy on punt team and this guy on that team,’” Hood smiled.
Every coach found himself checking out the 13 or so players from the class of 2017 who were redshirted — and several others who were used sparingly — and imagining the future possibilities.
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“Across the board, I think we’re excited about that group,” Coach Mark Stoops told the Herald-Leader.
The head coach isn’t one to single out players because “there’s a bunch of them,” Stoops said, but when prodded he named a few that have caught his attention in recent weeks.
“Tyrell Ajian is a DB who looks very good,” Stoops said. “He came in with an injury and I think he has a chance. Michael Nesbitt has a chance, (outside linebackers) Jordan Wright and Alex King. We’re happy with all of those guys.”
And there’s offensive lineman Naasir Watkins. “We’re real high on him,” Stoops said. “We really came close to playing him three or four times. He really has a chance to be special.”
Kentucky came close to playing “four, five, six of these guys,” Stoops said.
But the coach is glad they waited. “I’m excited about these guys getting an opportunity to work and get on the field next year.”
It’s going to take some serious work to get on the field next season, though.
With the announced returns this week of junior defensive standouts Mike Edwards, Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, UK has 10 starters back on that side of the ball, losing only middle linebacker Courtney Love.
On offense, Kentucky lost its leader in quarterback Stephen Johnson, its top receiver in Garrett Johnson and several veterans in wide receivers Charles Walker and Blake Bone and linemen Kyle Meadows, Cole Mosier and Nick Haynes as well as tight end Greg Hart.
Even with those departures, the offense returns nine players who have been regular starters in their time at Kentucky if you include senior wide receiver Dorian Baker, who has started 32 career games, but missed this past season with an ankle injury, and junior-to-be Landon Young, who has started multiple games at left tackle.
Having 17 “official” starters back on offense and defense would tie the school record for most since 1986, when UK started keeping track of that stat, team spokesman Tony Neely said.
The only group that will be going through a significant rebuild will be Hood’s special teams unit, which lost the school’s all-time leading scorer and perhaps most consistent player in kicker Austin MacGinnis as well as punter Matt Panton.
Walk-on Charles Moushey, another key cog on special teams who became best known for downing Panton’s punts inside the 10-yard line, will be gone as well.
Incoming freshmen and redshirted players will supplement — and try to supplant — the current starters, like at the defensive back positions. Starters like Edwards, Derrick Baity, Chris Westry, Darius West and Lonnie Johnson will get a nudge from players like Ajian, Nesbitt, Cedrick Dort, Yusuf Corker and others.
Having four veteran seniors back in the secondary can only help that younger group grow, Edwards said Thursday.
“When I was a freshman, I looked up to some of the older guys and they helped me when I didn’t know a lot of things,” he said. “So having four senior starters right now in the secondary plays a big part, and the young guys can look up to us and get a feel for the game.”
While Love and Edwards aren’t sure which of the newcomers will be competing for starting spots next season, they like what they’ve seen from the players who have been waiting for their shot.
“I was just in the weight room … lifting with some of those guys and I tell you what, I think fans and a lot of people at UK are going to be really proud of what’s coming up,” Love said before the bowl.
“These guys are working hard. They want to win and carry on the culture that’s been established. I can’t wait to see them play. It’s going to be a blast.”
2018 Wildcats position by position
(Listings are alphabetical and include only scholarship players; returning starters in bold; r-players who were redshirted in 2017; n-newcomers)
Quarterbacks — Danny Clark (r), Gunnar Hoak, Terry Wilson (n), Walker Wood (r)
Running backs — Sihiem King, A.J. Rose, Benny Snell, Chris Rodriguez (n)
Wide receivers — Marvin Alexander (n), Josh Ali, Dorian Baker (started in 2016), Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps, Akeem Hayes (n), Bryce Oliver (n), Tavin Richardson, Clevan Thomas
Tight ends — Brenden Bates (n), C.J. Conrad, Justin Rigg, Keaton Upshaw (n)
Linemen — George Asafo-Adjei, Luke Fortner, Sebastien Dolcine (r), Austin Dotson (r), Kenneth Horsey (n), Drake Jackson, Darian Kinnard (n), E.J. Price, Bunchy Stallings, Logan Stenberg, Naasir Watkins (r), Quintin Wilson (n), Landon Young
Linemen — Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald (r), Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, Kengera Daniel, Tymere Dubose, Davoan Hawkins (n), Phil Hoskins, Kordell Looney, Jerquavion Mahone (n), Marquan McCall (n), Adrian Middleton, Denzil Ware, Chris Whittaker (r)
Linebackers — Josh Allen, Jaylin Bannerman, Eli Brown, Kash Daniel, Jamin Davis (r), Jordan Jones, Alex King (r), Josh Paschal, Ashtan Pierre (n), DeAndre Square (n), Jamar “Boogie” Watson, Jordan Wright (r)
Defensive backs — Tyrell Ajian (r), Derrick Baitym, Jamari Brown (n), Yusuf Corker (r), Cedrick Dort, Mike Edwards, Stanley Garner (n), Tobias Gilliam, Jordan Griffin, Zy’Aire Hughes, Lonnie Johnson, Michael Nesbitt (r), Davonte Robinson, Marcus Walker, Darius West, Chris Westry, Domonique Williams (n)
Punters — Max Duffy (n), Grant McKinniss
Place-kickers — Chance Poore (n)
2018 UK FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
All times TBA. Home games in capital letters
Sept. 1: CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Sept. 8: At Florida
Sept. 15: MURRAY STATE
Sept. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 29: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 6: At Texas A&M
Oct. 20: VANDERBILT
Oct. 27: At Missouri
Nov. 3: GEORGIA
Nov. 10: At Tennessee
Nov. 17: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Nov. 24: At Louisville