UK football's four opportunities to have a breakthrough season
CATS ON OFFENSE
Coordinators: Eddie Gran, second season at Kentucky, 29th season as a college assistant coach, seventh season as an offensive coordinator; and Darin Hinshaw, 17th season as a college assistant coach, sixth as an offensive coordinator.
Position coaches: Eddie Gran, running backs; Darin Hinshaw, quarterbacks; Lamar Thomas, wide receivers; Vince Marrow tight ends; John Schlarman, offensive line, Tommy Mangino, quality control assistant; Michael Colosimo, Evan McKissack, offensive graduate assistants.
Scheme: Multiple pro-style.
Last season: Kentucky finished 10th in the Southeastern Conference and 61st (out of 128) nationally in total offense, averaging 420.2 yards per game. The Cats were ninth in the league in scoring offense, averaging 30.3 points per game.
Returning starters: Garrett Johnson, wide receiver; C.J. Conrad, tight end; Nick Haynes, offensive guard; Kyle Meadows, offensive tackle; Bunchy Stallings, offensive line; Stephen Johnson, quarterback.
What to watch: Kentucky returns many of the pieces to last season’s success, including star freshman running back Benny Snell, and quarterbacks Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker, all tight ends, six regulars from the offensive line rotation as well as many top wide receivers, but Gran and Hinshaw have to do some shuffling to make all of the pieces mesh. A second season in the offense and coaching continuity should help this veteran group get deeper into the playbook and difficult to defend as long as new home-run playmakers emerge.
Question marks: Will those home-run threats actually emerge now that wideout Jeff Badet and running back Boom Williams have moved on? With fewer interchangeable parts on the offensive line and no Williams, can the Cats’ run game be as dominant as it was a season ago? Is there a sophomore jinx in Benny Snell’s future? Does UK have enough options at running back behind him? Can Stephen Johnson expand playbook with better mid-range passing and fewer turnovers? Can the wide receivers and tight ends become more of a threat?
Outlook: It was difficult to predict that Kentucky would end up third in the league in rushing offense last season behind just Alabama and Auburn, but the Cats established themselves as a difficult stop behind Williams and Snell. They will have to have more than just one option this season, too, and hope they have found it in A.J. Rose and Sihiem King and possibly another true freshman. UK also needs to get the same sort of production out of a retooled and less deep offensive line this year. The wide receiver group appears to be more talented and deeper than a season ago, but they haven’t always shown consistency. Only six teams turned it over more last season than UK, a problem the Cats have to solve.
CATS ON DEFENSE
Coordinator: Matt House, second season at Kentucky and first as its coordinator after previous coordinator stops at Pittsburgh and Florida International.
Position coaches: Steve Clinkscale, defensive backs; Dean Hood, outside linebackers/special teams coordinator; Matt House, inside linebackers; Derrick LeBlanc, defensive line; Dillon Sanders, quality control assistant; Chase Heuke and Thomas Wells, defensive graduate assistants.
Last season: Kentucky finished ninth in the Southeastern Conference and 85th in the nation in total defense, allowing 434.2 yards per game. The Cats allowed opponents to average 31.3 points per game last season, 11th in the league.
Returning starters: Josh Allen, defensive end/outside linebacker; Derrick Baity, cornerback; Mike Edwards, defensive back; Jordan Jones, weakside linebacker; Courtney Love, middle linebacker; Adrian Middleton, defensive tackle; Naquez Pringle, nose guard; Chris Westry, cornerback.
What to watch: Kentucky returns eight of its top 10 tacklers from last season, including its top four in Jordan Jones, Mike Edwards, Courtney Love and Denzil Ware, which gives hope going forward that this will be a better season defensively. But the Cats are going to have to find ways to slow the run after permitting 228.2 yards per game last season, third worst in the league. Experience (and depth) abound in the back seven spots for the defense, but the interior line remains a question UK has to answer. The secondary has some versatility, but is doing some shuffling and will have to replace leaders in Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson.
Question marks: Can Kentucky find a way to stop the run? Only one team in the SEC (Arkansas) was worse on third down than the Cats, who allowed opponents to convert 44.4 percent of the time. Can they drop that number significantly? Can coaches find way on first and second down to make it third-and-manageable for the defense? Will some playmakers — both young and old — emerge on the interior defensive line? Has the depth improved enough to keep stars like Edwards and Jones from having to play nearly every snap?
Outlook: After giving up more than 500 yards to opponents in each of the first three games, Kentucky’s inexperienced defense settled in and started to make plays when needed, especially down the stretch. The good news is many of the Cats’ top playmakers and their backups return this season. The big push is to stop the run — UK allowed opponents to average 200-plus yards on the ground for the first time since 2004 — and it’s hard to know until the games happen if there’s been significant improvement. With proven talent everywhere else, UK can scheme around the relatively untested defensive line, but only so much. If the Cats can at least slow the run and get more pressure on the ball in the passing game, they could surprise some people.