By the end of the process, Mike Edwards and Josh Allen had a handful of reasons they wanted to come back to Kentucky next season.
Both UK defensive standouts wanted to improve their NFL Draft stock to hopefully go in one of the earliest rounds next year. Both said they wanted to get stronger physically.
And both the safety and linebacker couldn’t help but notice the number of starters back for the Cats in 2018.
“All of us returning except for one starter, that’s a big boost for us coming back and that’s what I really thought about when I (decided to) come back,” Edwards said of the defense.
“I feel like in the time I’ve been here, we haven’t been to the SEC championship and that’s one thing I want to go to.”
In all, the Cats have 17 starters back from last season’s Music City Bowl team, the most since 1986, when UK started keeping track of that statistic.
Even that number is deceiving since players who started significant snaps like wide receiver Dorian Baker and left tackle Landon Young aren’t counted in Kentucky’s official number because they weren’t full-time starters last season.
It won’t be a rebuilding year, but a year where Kentucky is building toward something bigger, its players said.
But there are a couple of key spots — quarterback and middle linebacker — where the Cats are replacing not only key play-makers but also key team leaders in Stephen Johnson and Courtney Love.
Here’s a look at the two key positions and how they’re shaping up for Kentucky next season.
Don’t think for a minute that because Kentucky is replacing a run-pass option quarterback in Johnson that the plan will be to shoehorn in recent transfer Terry Wilson into the quarterback spot.
Both Wilson and sophomore Gunnar Hoak will have a chance to help decide what type of offense UK will run.
“As we get more and more explosive guys and try to create that space, the offense will morph into what we can do,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops told the Herald-Leader recently. “We want to throw the ball better.”
When he hired Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to run UK’s offense, “they were throwing the lights out of the ball at Cincinnati,” Stoops said.
“They were throwing the ball all over the field. They had a bunch of receivers with all kinds of catches. We could be that way, too.”
Hoak is ahead of the other quarterbacks because of the number of repetitions he’s gotten with the first- and second-team units K since arriving two years ago. He knows the offense.
“Gunnar was too good to not get quality reps, to get looked at with the ones,” Stoops said of Hoak, a four-star prospect out of Dublin, Ohio, according to ESPN.
“He throws the ball as well as anybody we’ve had. His demeanor is always great. But until you get under center in the game, you don’t know exactly what you have, but athletically and the way he throws the ball, he’s very gifted.”
The 6-foot-4, 206-pounder has displayed poise and accuracy in two spring game appearances and has progressed well in his two seasons on UK’s bench.
“Gunnar has been playing his butt off, really proud of him and he’s feisty and wants to be out there playing,” quarterbacks coach Hinshaw said before the Music City Bowl. “He’s doing a great job and we’re going to continue to press those guys, do the best we can.”
Wilson, one of the top junior-college quarterbacks in the country, is the great unknown. The 6-3, 203-pounder completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,113 yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 11 games last year for Garden City Community College in Kansas last fall.
He also ran for 518 yards and five touchdowns, but described himself as a pass-first quarterback.
“He fits in very well with what we do,” Stoops said on the early national signing day in December. “He’s very versatile. He’s got a very strong arm. He’s very poised in the pocket.”
There are two other wild-card candidates entering the spring as well in redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood.
Hinshaw said in December that Wood had two surgeries on his throwing arm this past season and hadn’t been fully cleared to return.
“I would love to see Walker get back out there,” former Cats quarterback Johnson said recently. “He hasn’t been with us too much but that kid is a stud. He’s in the training room, he’s up here more than most of the guys here trying to get that extra work in.”
Clark is still raw in many ways, but Stoops is a big fan.
“Danny’s a warrior,” Stoops said on his coaches’ call-in show late in the season. “He’s a big, strong guy.”
That’s not Clark’s most important asset, though, the head coach said.
“You know what you’ve got to love about him? He’s about as good of a teammate as any guy I’ve ever been around,” Stoops said. “That’s quite a compliment. He really is a team guy. He works exceptionally hard; he’s got great energy about him.”
The only full-time starter not returning for Kentucky’s defense next season is Love at middle linebacker. His production will be hard to replace, finishing second on the team in tackles with 92, including 3.5 for loss and a sack.
Love also had three pass breakups and recovered two fumbles. But more importantly, he was a calming presence in the middle of the UK defense that will be missed.
But the Cats have some options at that spot, starting with Love’s backup each of the past two seasons in junior Kash Daniel.
“Definitely think Kash will be very similar,” Stoops said. “Kash is just as passionate as Courtney. He’s physical like Courtney and I think Kash is getting better with every opportunity.”
Daniel, who has 18 tackles (mostly on special teams) in his Cats career, showed big improvement this past season, defensive coordinator Matt House said.
“He’s just understanding it better, moving better, playing with more confidence.”
Kentucky needs to “develop some other guys as well,” Stoops said, noting that redshirt freshman Jamin Davis showed a lot of potential.
“We’ll look at a lot of options inside and see what we can do as far as moving outside guys in and so on to get a solid two-deep there,” Stoops continued.
UK has two veteran play-makers at weakside linebacker in Jordan Jones and Eli Brown. It’s possible they could be on the field together some next season, but Stoops said he had concerns about them not being big enough to slide in at middle linebacker.
Projected 2018 depth chart
LT: Landon Young (6-7, 305, Jr.); Naasir Watkins (6-4, 283, R-Fr.)
LG: Logan Stenberg (6-6, 318, Jr.); Luke Fortner (6-6, 305, So.)
C: Drake Jackson (6-2, 290, So.); Bunchy Stallings (6-3, 315, Sr.)
RG: Bunchy Stallings (6-3, 315, Sr.); Mason Wolfe (6-6, 310, Jr.)
RT: George Asafo-Adjei (6-5, 315, Sr.); E.J. Price (6-6, 311, So.-Tr.)
TE: C.J. Conrad (6-5, 245, Sr.); Justin Rigg (6-6, 246, So.)
WR: Dorian Baker (6-3, 211, Sr.); Marvin Alexander (6-2, 175, Fr.)
WR: Clevan Thomas (5-11, 205, So.); Lynn Bowden (6-1, 190, So.)
WR: Lynn Bowden (6-1, 190, So.); Akeem Hayes (5-10, 170, Fr.)
WR: Tavin Richardson (6-4, 214, Jr.); Josh Ali (6-0, 180, So.) OR Isaiah Epps (6-2, 185, So.)
QB: Gunnar Hoak (6-4, 206, So.) OR Terry Wilson (6-3, 205, JC-So.)
RB: Benny Snell (5-11, 223, Jr.); Sihiem King (5-9, 172, Sr.) OR A.J. Rose (6-1, 200, So.)
LB: Josh Allen (6-5, 224, Sr.); Jamar “Boogie” Watson (6-3, 240, So.) OR Jordan Wright (6-5, 230, R-Fr.)
DT: Adrian Middleton (6-3, 303, Sr.); Kordell Looney (6-3, 293, So.)
NG: Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 320, So.); Tymere DuBose (6-5, 320, Sr.)
DE: T.J. Carter (6-4, 280, Jr.); Kengera Daniel (6-5, 260, Sr.)
DE/OLB: Denzil Ware (6-2, 245, Sr.); Josh Paschal (6-3, 270, So.)
MLB: Kash Daniel (6-1, 235, Jr.); Jamin Davis (6-4, 212, R-Fr.)
WLB: Jordan Jones (6-2, 221, Sr.); Eli Brown (6-2, 208, Jr.)
CB: Derrick Baity (6-3, 182, Sr.); Jordan Griffin (6-0, 186, Jr.)
CB: Lonnie Johnson (6-3, 203, Sr.) OR Chris Westry (6-4, 195, Sr.)
SS: Mike Edwards (6-0, 200, Sr.); Jordan Griffin (6-0, 186, Jr.)
FS: Darius West (6-0, 210, Sr.); Davonte Robinson (6-2, 187, So.)