With SEC Football Media Days just three weeks away, Kentucky football will arrive before we know it.
With that in mind, here is one man’s list of the five UK players with the most to prove this fall:
1. Jordan Jones
The junior linebacker from Youngstown, Ohio, was the lone UK first-team selection on the Birmingham News’ 71st annual preseason All-SEC team, selected by the league’s communication directors. Jones did top bowl-bound Kentucky in tackles last year, earning second-team All-SEC honors from the coaches. UK announced Tuesday that Jones was a third-team All-America preseason choice by Athlon.
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On the plus side, Jones is a fiery competitor sparked by emotion. On the con side, his free spirit sometimes slips into immaturity. Example: Jones was held out of April’s Blue-White Spring Game for missing a team meeting. He’s a junior now. By position and talent, he should be the leader of Mark Stoops’ defense. Jones has proven he can get the job done on the field, but can he show he is accountable and responsible off the field, as well?
2. Stephen Johnson
An unknown quantity as a junior-college transfer quarterback, Johnson proved plenty last fall. Replacing injured starter Drew Barker in the season’s third game, Johnson led UK to a 7-6 record and TaxSlayer Bowl appearance. He completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions. He also rushed for 327 yards and three scores. His even-keel demeanor steadied the offense under new coordinator Eddie Gran.
Now Johnson has to prove it all over again. Barker has returned from back surgery. Redshirt freshman quarterback Gunnar Hoak was the star of the Spring Game. And Johnson must shed his nasty habit of fumbling away the football. Last year, circumstance handed him the job and Johnson ran with it. This year, he must earn it.
3. Benny Snell
As a true freshman, Snell rushed for 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns. He earned Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America honors by leaving a string of broken tackles in his wake. Didn’t Snell prove it all in his standout rookie season?
Not quite. The Westerville, Ohio, native was an unknown quantity then. It was three games before he was given the football. The surprise factor will be gone in 2017. Opposing defensive coordinators will have spent the summer studying Snell’s bullish running style. And Snell won’t have another 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield, what with Boom Williams having moved on for a shot at the NFL. Will he suffer the sophomore jinx? Or will he run right through it?
4. Dorian Baker
Injuries and dropped passes have kept the senior wide receiver from cracking his ceiling. Baker missed the first three games of 2016 with a hamstring injury and ended up with just 14 receptions in 10 games. As a sophomore, Baker caught 31 passes the first six games and finished with 55 grabs for 608 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet Baker ended the 2016 regular season on a high note, making the 35-yard TD grab to put UK up 38-31 on Louisville in the Cats’ breakthrough 41-38 win. At 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, Baker has the size and strength to be an NFL receiver. Former Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles referred to Baker as a “two-car garage.” This is his last chance to put it all together, however. Baker needs to go out with a bang.
5. Logan Stenberg
The 6-6, 318-pound redshirt sophomore offensive lineman was an All-SEC Freshmen selection by the coaches last season. According to UK, Stenberg produced 37 knockdown blocks and missed just one assignment. Eight of those knockdowns came against Tennessee. He also allowed just one quarterback pressure. And he contributed to an offensive line that produced two 1,000-yard rushers.
Stenberg did so primarily as a fill-in and spot starter. He is likely to be a full-time starter at guard and one with big expectations. That Birmingham News poll pegged Stenberg a second-team All-SEC preseason pick. Now he has to prove he’s deserving.
2017 UK schedule
At Southern Miss
At South Carolina
At Miss State