Only minutes after Northwestern foiled Kentucky’s last gasp at victory in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl by thwarting a two-point conversion pass, UK Coach Mark Stoops looked to the future.
“Our team knows they can be very, very good, and win lots of football games in the SEC and go to even better bowls,” Stoops said inside Nissan Stadium following UK’s 24-23 loss.
If UK is going to improve on back-to-back 7-6 seasons in 2018, Stoops and the Wildcats will have to find answers to at least five crucial questions:
1. Who will replace Stephen Johnson at quarterback?
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It was not always pretty, but after coming to Lexington as an unheralded junior-college recruit, Johnson led Kentucky to 14 wins, eight SEC victories and five road wins in his almost two full seasons as UK’s primary quarterback.
His leadership and knack for making plays under game-deciding pressure will not be easy to replace.
Fifth-year senior Drew Barker, sophomore-to-be Gunnar Hoak and junior-college transfer Terry Wilson figure to battle it out in the spring to be Johnson’s replacement.
Redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood could also fight their way into the QB battle.
Whether a drop-back passer (Barker, Hoak, Clark) or a dual-threat QB (Wilson, Wood) wins the starting job presumably determines what the offensive emphasis will be for the Wildcats in 2018.
2. Who will catch passes from whoever wins the QB position?
Kentucky’s two-deep depth chart for the Music City Bowl featured four senior wide receivers — Garrett Johnson (48 catches), Kayaune Ross (19), Charles Walker (15) and Blake Bone (13).
So there will be ample opportunity for a new cast of wideouts to make their marks in 2018.
This season, true freshmen Lynn Bowden (17 catches), Isaiah Epps (four), Josh Ali (three) and Clevan Thomas (one) all saw action. At least a couple of them need to take big steps forward in 2018.
Don’t forget Dorian Baker, who will be back as a fifth-year senior after missing 2017 due to injury. He figures to join junior-to-be Tavin Richardson (27 catches) as the featured receivers.
3. Can Kentucky successfully replace both starting kickers?
Austin MacGinnis ended his UK career by booming one final clutch field goal, a 48-yarder with 4:24 left in the Music City Bowl that drew the Cats within one score of the lead.
MacGinnis is leaving Kentucky as the school’s all-time leading career scorer (359 points).
UK must also replace starting punter Matt Panton, the Australian who had an effective senior season after graduate transferring from Columbia.
Newcomers seem likely to inherit both specialist jobs. In the early signing period, Stoops used two scholarships on kickers.
Chance Poore, an Anderson, S.C., product, is projected to replace MacGinnis. UK also signed another Australian punter in Max Duffy.
Kentucky still has Grant McKinniss, starting punter in 2016, on scholarship.
4. Who will play middle linebacker?
In the final game of his Kentucky career, middle linebacker Courtney Love had 10 tackles.
Will his graduation clear a starting spot for former Paintsville star Kash Daniel, who will be a junior next season? Or will promising sophomore-to-be Jamar “Boogie” Watson move from outside linebacker to claim the spot?
5. Can Kentucky do something to stop the run?
Northwestern ran for 333 yards against UK on Friday. Believe it or not, that was the fewest yards on the ground Kentucky surrendered in its final three games. Georgia gashed the Cats for 381 yards and Louisville amassed 346.
Stoops indicated after the regular season that he was open to switching back to a 4-3 base after using a 3-4 in recent years.
Historically, 3-4 fronts have not worked at Kentucky, which struggles to recruit the caliber of defensive linemen necessary to make that scheme effective.
Judging by how easily opponents ran the ball on the Cats this season, the 3-4 has not worked this time, either.
2018 Kentucky football schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 1: CENTRAL MICHIGAN
Sept. 8: at Florida
Sept. 15: MURRAY STATE
Sept. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 29: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 6: At Texas A&M
Oct. 13: Open date
Oct. 20: VANDERBILT
Oct. 27: at Missouri
Nov. 3: GEORGIA
Nov. 10: At Tennessee
Nov. 17: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Nov. 24: At Louisville