What’s that thing coaches say right after a game, before they sit down and digest the video?
Something like things are never as good as you think they are and never as bad as you thought they were.
In my own weird take on that, I’ve created a list of 10 things to ponder as you wait for the season opener on Saturday.
First are five things that should concern you going into Kentucky’s 2016 football season, its fourth under Coach Mark Stoops, and then five things that should get you excited.
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Five reasons to be concerned
1. Front seven: The projected starters on Kentucky’s front seven defensively (linemen Matt Elam, Alvonte Bell and Courtney Miggins; and linebackers Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, Courtney Love and Eli Brown) have a whopping 16 collegiate starts between them. That’s a lot of wrinkles and problems to work out among a lot of moving parts. It would be difficult for this relatively fast, athletic group to be worse than last season’s team at getting to the quarterback (the Cats were among the worst nationally in sacks and tackles for loss), but it’s hard to see where and from whom the production comes. This could prove to be a talented group, but they’re going to make mistakes early, especially against the run.
2. Special teams: Kentucky had its share of issues with this group last season, and there are still many question marks about replacing four-year starters at punter and long snapper. There’s a chance UK will be using not one but two punters this season. The Cats haven’t returned a punt or kick for a touchdown in the Stoops era, and they are breaking in a brand-new special teams coach in Matt House. Stoops has said many times that better depth and better athletes will translate to better special teams play, but that remains to be seen.
3. Declining attendance: As of last week, Kentucky hadn’t sold more than 40,000 season tickets and was at least 15,000 tickets short of a sellout for Saturday’s opener against Southern Miss. There is no question fans feel burned by a lot of factors, but also by the back-to-back 5-7 seasons where the team has gotten so close to its first bowl since 2010 only to have the season end cruelly to Louisville. But it’s often said winning cures all, and it’s likely to cure this issue, too.
4. Quarterback: There have been zero eyebrow-raising moments this camp about quarterbacks. Third-year sophomore Drew Barker has been praised regularly as a leader on and off the field. He’s made big plays in the scrimmages with very few careless turnovers, but he’s still a first-year starter managing a new offense, and there are sure to be some difficulties. And it’s hard to forget the issues he had in his start against Louisville to end last season. If Barker can’t get the ball to a seemingly vast array of playmakers, then no matter how many offensive changes are made, there will still be the same old issues. Perhaps the one difference this season could be a reliable backup in Stephen Johnson. The junior college QB (who needs to gain more weight and has struggled at times with his accuracy on long passes) could be an excellent safety valve if things aren’t going well for Barker. A change-of-pace player could be good for UK, too.
5. First-game jitters: Kentucky needed a gimme game to feel better about itself to start the season; instead the Cats get an opener against a 9-5 bowl team last season in Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles return several playmakers offensively, including QB Nick Mullens with his 4,476 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, as well as a star running back in Ito Smith, who managed more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. There’s also the dramatic twist of UK facing former offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who was fired after one season and landed at Southern Miss. A lot is riding on that first game for Kentucky, possibly even a bowl game.
Five reasons to be excited
1. Running backs: There isn’t a position deeper and with more talent than this one, and the Cats’ multitude of runners are working behind an offensive line that returns four of its five starters with 83 starts between them. Even an offense that looked confused and lacking identity last season had some talented pieces. When Boom Williams was healthy and playing, UK’s offense looked multi-dimensional and can look that way again with even more potential playmakers. It also helps that there’s more accountability in that running back room with head coach of the offense Eddie Gran in charge. He expects the players in that room to understand every part of the offense, not just their job within it.
2. The East isn’t exactly a beast: Only one team in the SEC’s Eastern Division seems to have its act together completely: Tennessee. Others like Florida are retooling defenses and breaking in a new quarterback transfer. Three East teams (Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina) are breaking in new coaches, and even though they return some key talent (especially Georgia), coaching transitions aren’t always smooth. To say South Carolina and Missouri are rebuilding after attrition is an understatement. Vanderbilt is always an interesting game, but UK gets that game at Commonwealth Stadium along with the contests against South Carolina and Georgia. The battles for third and fourth place in the East are going to be fascinating to watch, and the Cats seem primed to make a move.
3. The secondary: Remember the 2013 Missouri game when 6-foot-5 wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham just lifted up his arms and easily caught four touchdown passes over the much smaller UK corners? Those days seem long gone now. Cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity have length, size and speed. Other contributors are lockdown safety Mike Edwards and veteran leaders Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson. All of them have put on some bulk and have another year of experience facing the top talent in the SEC. This summer, they went up against some massive wide receivers of their own like Dorian Baker, newcomer Kayaune Ross and redshirt freshmen Jabari Greenwood and Tavin Richardson.
4. Offensive playmakers: We’ve discussed the returning starters on the offensive line and the veterans on offense overall with 99.1 percent of the catches back from last season and 97.3 percent of the rushing yardage. Add in two high-level tight ends and some promising new playmakers at running back and wideout, and there seems to be the recipe for success. But more importantly, Gran seems to be the veteran voice of reason that doesn’t accept mediocrity. He’s a grownup with 28 years of coaching experience, much of it coming in the SEC. If he does his job and the playmakers do theirs, it could be a beautiful season for the offense.
5. Confidence and swagger: Every coach and player in the offseason talks about bigger, stronger, faster. Blah. Blah. Blah. But Kentucky’s coaches have some numbers to back it up, including a better than 28 percent increase in workload, according to Stoops and his sports science folks. The word “capacity” has come up a bunch, and this group with its bulk of redshirt juniors and sophomores seems to be able to do more on the field in workouts and off the field in meetings. Add to it UK’s new facility. When things feel first-class, it can make players rise to that level, Stoops said. “We’re changing the culture,” he said in July. “They deserve the very best, and part of that culture is to have the very best. We play in the best league in college football. We compete against the very best. We recruit against the very best. We need these types of facilities for our players, and, yes, I do think it will make a difference.”
Southern Miss at Kentucky
What: Season opener
When: 7:30 p.m.