Pondering the state of the Kentucky Wildcats football program now that Mark Stoops has completed his fourth spring practice as UK head coach:
Question 1: The biggest development of the Kentucky off-season?
JOHN CLAY, Lexington Herald-Leader Sports Columnist: “The firing of Shannon Dawson and the hiring of Eddie Gran as (assistant) head coach in charge of offense and Darin Hinshaw (as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach). Stoops sacking his offensive coordinator after just one year and changing the offense. I’ve been impressed with Gran during the spring. He seems like he knows what he’s doing. We haven’t gotten to see a lot of the offense, but I like the fact he has some experience and has some SEC experience ... I can see where Gran’s experience helps, not only the offense but the coaching staff overall.”
ALAN CUTLER, WLEX-TV Sports Director/Anchor: “Eddie Gran. The credibility he brings to the table - and I don’t mean to be nasty here - is something that was desperately needed. At first glance, it appears that he’s got people’s attention better than at any point since Stoops arrived.”
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MARK STORY, Lexington Herald-Leader Sports Columnist: “The hiring of Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to run the offense. On a staff that has trended young, both have prior SEC experience (Gran at Ole Miss and Auburn; Hinshaw at Tennessee). The offense they ran last year at Cincinnati was the sixth most prolific in the country (537.7 yards a game). To put that in a ‘Kentucky perspective,’ UC averaged 3.5 more yards a game last year than the Tim Couch-directed UK Air Raid attack (534.2) in 1998. So I’m optimistic that Gran and Hinshaw can make a positive difference.”
Question 2: Biggest casue for concern for UK going into 2016?
CLAY: “I think it is the defense more so than the offense because of all the guys (UK) lost. Defensive line, linebacker, they don’t have anybody with almost any experience at linebacker. The secondary should be good, but your secondary relies so much on your defensive line and what kind of pass rush you get. All the talk has been about the offense, but, to me, there are a lot more questions on defense.”
CUTLER: “Belief. Always concerned from the first day I got (to Lexington) in the 1980s that the lack of belief has been a major stumbling block, and I am not convinced that problem has been solved. If they solve that, that might help them win, not 10 games, but it might help them win another game, maybe two. And that sets this road on a path that is at least heading in the proper direction.”
STORY: “Defensive front seven. UK knew it was losing three starting defensive linemen, including standouts Cory Johnson and Melvin Lewis, and its three best linebackers. Jason Hatcher getting kicked off the team exacerbated an already-challenging situation. UK’s chances of getting bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010 may well hinge on whether the Cats can find effective play on the defensive front. Matt Elam, this is your time.
Question 3: With a 12-24 record through three years, does Mark Stoops face a make-or-break season in 2016?
CLAY: “Because of his contract, unless they just totally bottom out, I think he is going to get a fifth year. Back in the day, (people used to say) everybody deserves five years to see how they do. Now, it seems like (the norm) is three or four. So I don’t know if it is make or break, but it would really help him and help him with the fan base if they could get over the hump and even just get to that sixth win and get to a bowl. ... It’s going to be tough to do, though, with the schedule they have and the talent on the team.”
CUTLER: “No. The only way it breaks is if they just totally collapse and there is no effort, there is no wins - and when I say no wins, I don’t mean zero. As long as the effort is there and you can see improvement, I really believe football is different than basketball. And I said on the day (Stoops) was hired, on TV, I said - and this will sound a little corny now - but I said ‘If (Stoops) is any good, he’s got to be able to play with fifth-year seniors on the offensive line, and unless something bad happens, he needs to have this opportunity.’ I said it then, and I believe it now. I understand fans’ lack of patience, but I think (UK has) more talent. I just don’t know if it is good enough.”
STORY: “Barring a complete competitive collapse, 1-11, 2-10, I do not think 2016 is Mark Stoops’ make-or-break year. If Kentucky were to fire him without cause after the ‘16 season, it would owe him some $12 million. I have a hard time believeing UK would pay him $12 million NOT to coach unless this season becomes a full-scale disaster - which I do not expect. So I think Mark Stoops will get two more years, at least.”