UK Football

Five reasons to worry, five reasons to cheer as Kentucky football season opener looms

See the UK football team practice at Joe Craft Training Center

The UK football team practiced at the Joe Craft Training Center football practice field Tuesday morning.
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The UK football team practiced at the Joe Craft Training Center football practice field Tuesday morning.

Wearing my scientist-approved eclipse glasses, lying on a beach towel on my front lawn last week, I watched the darkness of the moon overcome the sun for a few seconds.

Light to dark to light again.

So at this moment when the glow of an upcoming Kentucky football season is still soft and picture perfect, let’s take a quick look at the bright — and dark —sides going into Mark Stoops’ fifth season.

The Dark

1. Interior defensive line: This much-maligned group has given fans plenty of reasons to fret going into this season. The defensive line was responsible for just 18 percent of Kentucky’s tackles for loss last season, with only two sacks. The group returns two players, Naquez Pringle and Adrian Middleton, who were responsible for any of those negative-yardage plays. There is questionable depth and serious youth surrounding both of those players. If UK wants to hold opponents under 200 yards rushing per game, it’s going to need a lot more from the interior defensive line.

2. Turnovers: Somehow, Kentucky had 28 turnovers (its most in nine seasons) and still managed to walk away with a winning record. Only 16 other teams nationally had a worse turnover margin than the Cats’ minus-7. The chances of that math working out two seasons in a row are about as good as another eclipse happening here in 2018. After 16 fumbles last season, Kentucky has worked hard to correct those, but opponents will no doubt see the weakness on tape and work to exploit it.

3. Punting: Mark Stoops is a field-position coach, which means long, sustained drives by the offense and a punter who can pin an opponent as deep as possible. Stoops got the first part of that for much of last season, but the second part was a concern. True freshman punter Grant McKinniss was inconsistent and finished 97th out of 100 punters nationally with his 39.2-yard average. UK hopes another year of experience for McKinniss — and graduate transfer Matt Panton — solves that problem, but until the punters show some consistency in game situations, it’s still an issue.

4. Fickle fans: As columnist John Clay has discussed in recent days, fans have myriad reasons for not returning to Kentucky football games despite the breakthrough season in 2016 and a shiny, new stadium. It doesn’t look promising that UK will get to the 40,000-ticket sales mark it covets and hasn’t had since Stoops’ first season. Could that make recruiting even more of a challenge? Does it make Kroger Field a less intimidating home environment?

5. Injuries to veterans: Kentucky has not had a kind fall camp on the injury front. Left tackle Cole Mosier tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first scrimmage and is out for the year. A week later, wide receiver Dorian Baker broke and dislocated his ankle in the second scrimmage and is questionable for 2017. While there seem to be some options to replace the senior starters on the field, they were both impact players off the field in their position rooms. Overall depth has to become a question as well.

Kentucky wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talk about the loss of senior Dorian Baker to injury and how the team must adjust.

The Light

1. Benny Snell: Moe Williams and Sonny Collins finished their Kentucky careers with 26 rushing touchdowns. With 13 touchdowns in his first season, Snell is on pace to catch them by the end of his sophomore year. The phenom led all freshmen in the SEC in scoring with 78 points and set six Kentucky freshman records. He did all that while running in tandem with another 1,000-yard back in Boom Williams. It will be fascinating to see whether he can do more damage as the featured back this season. Cats fans also should be happy that Snell will have some help from A.J. Rose and Sihiem King, as well as true freshman Bryant Koback and, perhaps, even Lynn Bowden. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has expanded the wildcat package and put in other new wrinkles to get the running backs the ball, which could be fun to watch.

2. Defensive veterans back: Remember last season’s opener when Kentucky’s front seven had a total of 15 SEC starts between them? Those days are long gone now with 76 starts among this season’s likely front seven. The Cats return nine primary starters from last season, including seven of their top 10 tacklers. Kentucky coaches hope a season of growing and learning together will prevent some of the mistakes that cost UK early last season, such as giving up 500 or more yards in the first three games. Kentucky also seems to have productive depth at nearly every spot on that side of the ball.

3. Freshmen: Normally more of a question mark than a bright spot going into a new season, this 2017 signing class has Stoops saying positive things over and over again. “I love this freshman group,” Stoops said after the second scrimmage. “I think they’re instinctual, they’re ball players, they love playing, they’re here all the time. They’ve been impressive.” This class may end up being one of the most important signed by Stoops and staff, and it has names fans likely will get to know, including Lynn Bowden, Josh Paschal, Naasir Watkins, Isaiah Epps, Clevan Thomas and Josh Ali. The best part to the head coach is they’re not players UK will rely on, but instead can be used in a complementary role.

4. Austin MacGinnis: The senior kicker might be one of the least talked about but most important weapons for Kentucky this season after helping the Cats win two games on late kicks last year, including a 47-yarder with 12 seconds to go at No. 11 Louisville. MacGinnis made 16 of 19 field-goal attempts last season (84.2 percent) and enters this season with seven straight makes. He’s on pace to set a new school scoring record by the end of the season. MacGinnis said he’s expanded his range this summer and is confident in kicks 55 yards and closer. He’s also a weapon on kickoffs.

5. Quarterback depth: While much of the offseason talk is about starters and backups, one thing lost in that chatter is the true, tested depth Kentucky has at the QB spot. It’s a luxury to have two players in Stephen Johnson and Drew Barker who have started games in the SEC and have the faith of the offense. Coaches say the veterans have been running even all fall camp and fully understand the Cats’ playbook. Kentucky learned last season how quickly an injury can turn a season, and having depth at the single most important position for the offense can only be a positive.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Season opener

Kentucky at Southern Miss

4 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network)

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