A few years ago, Kentucky coaches might have been antsy waiting for a four-star freshman dynamo to arrive for the start of camp.
They might have spent an entire offseason planning their offense around the possibilities for a versatile player like Lynn Bowden, rated among the top 100 players nationally by multiple recruiting services.
Sitting in their offices this past week, Coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran indeed were discussing Bowden.
But not in the way one might think.
“Wow, isn’t that a nice bonus to talk about a guy who would just be gravy?” Stoops said, relaying the conversation to a luncheon in Lexington on Tuesday after describing the 6-foot-1, 190-pound newcomer from Youngstown, Ohio, as “electric, dynamic with the ball in his hands.”
This camp has a different feel for Kentucky’s head coach, who is starting his fifth season with something he’s never had before: quality depth at nearly every position.
“That’s the nice situation with going in with some experience this year,” Stoops continued of his Bowden anecdote.
With 17 back, Kentucky has the second-most returning starters in the Southeastern Conference behind only Georgia (18).
The Cats return nine starters on defense, including eight of the team’s top 10 tacklers. Their top four tacklers — linebacker Jordan Jones (109), safety Mike Edwards (100), linebacker Courtney Love (76) and outside linebacker Denzil Ware (70) — are all penciled into starting spots.
A star-caliber freshman “is going to have to be a guy who truly goes out and emerges,” new defensive coordinator Matt House said. “It’s not necessarily guys we need.”
There’s no replacement for experience, echoed Stoops, whose UK team finished with a winning record and made its first bowl trip since 2010 last year.
“We tried to work around that a year ago. But there’s no replacing it,” Stoops added of UK’s defense allowing 500 or more yards in each of the first three games last year.
“We took our lumps a year ago, in particular early in the season, and then we grew from it and got better. I think you’re going to see the fruits of all that work this year.”
Kentucky’s defense isn’t the only unit with returning veterans at most spots. The offense returns all but one of its top nine offensive linemen from last season.
There’s also quarterback Stephen Johnson, who helped guide UK to wins in seven of its final 10 games, and Freshman All-America running back Benny Snell, who set several school records.
While there was some home-run offensive loss in the offseason, the Cats return key playmakers such as wide receiver Garrett Johnson (585 yards and five touchdowns on 39 catches) and tight end C.J. Conrad (262 yards and four touchdowns on 19 grabs).
It’s not the returning yardage or the touchdowns returning that have Kentucky’s quarterback most excited for the start of preseason camp on Sunday, though.
“We’ve really got some guys stepping into leadership roles on the offensive side,” Johnson said at SEC Media Days. “We’re all really trying to pick it up and be the best we can be for this next season.”
That leadership piece is the one Stoops has been discussing all preseason instead of newcomers with lots of potential.
There have been seasons in the not-so-distant past when coaches might have had to play players because there were no options. This season, there are lots of them, which generates good competition.
“There is not a worse feeling for a coach than to feel like you’re held hostage and somebody knows you need to play him,” Stoops said, adding later, “now the culture has changed. It really has. Our players — they’re unbelievably efficient and they’re accountable to each other — that’s when you’re going to take the next step.”
The head coach has seen it this summer when he’s peeked down from his office onto the UK practice fields. Down below, he notices players taking on leadership roles previously relegated to coaches.
“You see our players holding each other accountable, holding their feet to the fire, running drills and running practices,” Stoops said. “That’s when you’re going to make giant gains. … I feel like that’s going to pay dividends on the field in terms of wins and losses.”
▪ Follow along live Sunday afternoon as Jennifer Smith, John Clay, Ben Roberts and Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com provide updates from the University of Kentucky’s Media Day activities at Kroger Field in Lexington.
▪ Head coach Mark Stoops will get things started when he addresses the media at 12:30 p.m. He will be followed by offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive coordinator Matt House around 1 p.m. Player interviews will take place after the annual team photo, which is scheduled for 2 p.m.