Ten questions about the Wildcats entering the 2014 University of Kentucky football season:
Question: What true freshmen can make the biggest impact this season on offense?
Answer: This 2014 recruiting class is among the deepest and most talented in Kentucky history, and coaches expect that it will be the class that helps the program turn the corner. So answering this question is difficult. A player like wide receiver Dorian Baker, with his height and physical style of play, looks like the obvious choice. He will be a target hit early and often by Towles. Any other season, a running back like Stanley "Boom" Williams could be the guy, but I'm not sure there are enough carries to move him up the charts with guys like Braylon Heard and Jojo Kemp on the roster, too. He could be a big boost in the return game and will be a change of pace in the ground attack.
Q: What true freshmen can make the biggest impact this season on defense?
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A: In a few years, some of the defensive linemen in this class could be All-Southeastern Conference caliber, but they're playing behind some impressive players this season and may have to wait. One player that Kentucky will use this season is defensive tackle Matt Elam, who at 6-foot-7, 375 pounds will be a tough matchup for most offensive lines. A freshman that has flown under the radar in fall camp but could make an immediate impact is four-star defensive back Kendall Randolph. Depending on the scheme, coaches may move versatile sophomore Blake McClain to safety and slide Randolph into the nickel back spot. He's smart and speedy and could help the UK secondary.
Q: How long will quarterback Patrick Towles' leash be?
A: The two-quarterback system last season exasperated Kentucky's coaches and left Kentucky's players feeling discombobulated and out of sync. So it seems likely they will give the UK sophomore a chance to grow into the position. Towles has shown the ability to adjust when he's not doing things well and likely could fix early problems with time and attention. He likely has enough help around him this season to mask inefficiencies in ways that Kentucky might not have had last year. If there are early losses or unexpected struggles, coaches will have to block out the noise from a fan base that has heard over and over again just how close the quarterback competition was in fall camp. And fans always love the back-up quarterbacks, especially when one of them is Drew Barker.
Q: Will the offensive tempo be better for Kentucky?
A: If it's not, Neal Brown may decide to get into insurance sales or something. The offensive coordinator is known for his NASCAR offenses at Texas Tech, where he averaged 80.1 snaps a game, compared to Kentucky, which managed just 64.5 snaps per game last season. That was the fewest snaps ever in his coordinating career by a long shot and the fewest in the SEC last season. UK has been emphasizing tempo in the pre-season and by all accounts, it was effective in the closed scrimmages. Brown may not get to his goal of 75-80 snaps a game this season, but the Cats' offense will be much, much closer.
Q: What position group is the biggest question mark going into the season?
A: Linebackers. Yes, there are concerns in the secondary after the difficulties last season, but coaches seem confident that a year of experience will make that group better, as will the additions of players like Randolph, junior college transfer A.J. Stamps and J.D. Harmon. But the linebackers will be learning as they go this season and will be without Avery Williamson, who led the Cats in tackles each of the last two seasons. UK will need big jumps from returning players like Khalid Henderson, Josh Forrest and TraVaughn Paschal and the Cats will need big play from junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan. Stoops and company will disguise some of the linebacker issues with different packages, but they still need the center of the defense to play well to win.
Q: Mark Stoops-coached defenses have been known to take a big statistical jump in his second year. Can fans expect the same in his second year?
A: The short answer is yes. The coach said so. In the final week of fall camp, Stoops was asked if there will be the same sort of statistical jumps he saw in his second years at Florida State and Arizona, and he was as sure of it as he was on Media Day when he answered the question. There's an increased understanding in the second year, more lightbulb moments. Stoops cited an increase in talent and the development of the returning players among other mitigating factors. "We're getting better," he said. "I don't know how much. We'll see how much of a jump we made. I know we've improved. I know we'll play better."
Q: Who can get the return game going again?
A: Kentucky hasn't had a punt returned for a touchdown since 2010 nor a kickoff returned for a touchdown since a year before that. The Cats will try to change both of those statistics this season with likely punt returner Ryan Timmons, who starred at that job in high school and has shown a knack for it this fall. On kickoffs, players like "Boom" Williams, T.V. Williams, Javess Blue, Jojo Kemp and Braylon Heard are all options. The return game isn't all about touchdowns, it's also about field position. Coaches think all of the above give them the best chance.
Q: Can Mark Stoops and staff maintain recruiting momentum if there's another subpar season?
A: Another 2-10 season might be catastrophic for recruiting because of the easier schedule and the upgrades in talent on paper. Coaches have been clear with recruits that there are still some hurdles for UK and that nearly 60 percent of the roster is guys who have only been playing there for a season, so it won't always be pretty. The campus momentum helps Kentucky's cause. Ongoing renovations at Commonwealth Stadium and a new 100,000-square foot football practice facility are pretty tangible proof that the program is on the rise. They should help cushion the blow of some losses.
Q: Will Kentucky's secondary get more than three interceptions this season?
A: It seems statistically impossible for UK to get fewer. The three picks last season, which was tied for fewest in the nation, set a new low for a Kentucky defense since 1946. Interceptions have been a big discussion in fall camp, with coaches in faces of players who should make the catch but don't. After one week of camp, McClain reported the Cats already had three times as many as they had all of last season with nine, and it only went up from there. More size and speed in the UK secondary should help considerably with the return of Harmon, who sat out last season, as well as the additions of junior college safety A.J. Stamps and freshman cornerback Randolph.
Q: How many games will Kentucky win this season?
A: Crystal balls are so fragile, so I don't usually carry one around. But I see Kentucky at least doubling its number of wins each of the past two seasons and getting four victories. I'd say five is a possibility, too, but it's all so fuzzy given the number of young players Stoops and company are managing. There's always lots of preseason hype, but UK still has some depth issues at key positions and will need to stay healthy to have a chance. Many of those wins will need to come early in the season when UK is at home to give the Cats some momentum heading into a brutal stretch with four of the final six games on the road.