With 17 starters returning, Kentucky goes into this spring football season with a lot fewer question marks than in Coach Mark Stoops’ previous five years.
But when the ball is snapped for the first time Monday, there are still plenty of things to be dissected and discussed as the Cats open the spring. Here are five:
A few years ago when Drew Barker had been named the starter, Stoops joked that news conferences felt incomplete without 100 questions about who the quarterback would be.
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That was the case last season as well with returning starter Stephen Johnson back for his senior season.
This is the season where those questions return as Kentucky tries to find its next signal caller. Will it be sophomore Gunnar Hoak, who has been waiting patiently in the wings for more than two seasons on campus? He knows the playbook, the system, the players.
In the past two years, Hoak, whom Stoops says “throws the ball as well as anybody we’ve had,” has gotten quality reps with the first- and second-team offense.
Or will the next quarterback be junior-college transfer Terry Wilson, a dual-threat quarterback who joined the Cats in January, who plugs right in to the current offensive style?
“He fits in very well with what we do,” Stoops said in December of the 6-foot-3, 203-pound former Oregon signee. “He’s very versatile. He’s got a very strong arm. He’s very poised in the pocket.”
Wilson completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,113 yards and 26 touchdowns with 11 interceptions in 11 games last season for Garden City Community College in Kansas. He also ran for 518 yards and five touchdowns.
This doesn’t feel like a question that will have an answer after the handfuls of practices leading up to the Blue-White Spring Game on April 13, but one of those questions that will keep being asked until at least the season opener.
The positive thing for whichever quarterback earns the starting spot on Sept. 1 is that he has plenty of experience around him to make the transition easier, including All-Southeastern Conference standouts like running back Benny Snell and C.J. Conrad as well as a mostly veteran offensive line.
“Just being able to hand the ball off to that dude and let him do what he needs to do makes my job way easier,” Wilson said of Snell. “C.J., once he gets healthy, is just going to be another load off my shoulders. It’s awesome having those guys coming back.”
There are other wild cards in that QB race like redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood, but how much they will contribute and when remains to be seen.
Wide receiver consistency
A lot of things contributed to Kentucky’s lack of a passing game for a good portion of the 2017 season, including injuries for QB Stephen Johnson and the re-emergence of Snell, but there also was a sense — as there has been for most of Stoops’ five seasons at Kentucky — that the wide receivers needed to make more plays and be more consistent.
Kentucky was at the bottom of the league in touchdown catches last season with 10, and exactly half of those scores were by players who aren’t wide-outs.
The Cats will be breaking in a new wide receivers coach in Michael Smith, previously at Arkansas, and he will be charged with trying to mold a group that includes four incoming freshmen who are not on campus yet and a handful of sophomores.
Not including Lynn Bowden (17 catches, 210 yards), the other second-year players — Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas — combined for eight catches for 84 yards last year.
Smith will get some help from the Cats’ lone veterans in Dorian Baker, a former standout who missed last season with an ankle injury, and Tavin Richardson. The junior had 27 catches for 371 yards and a touchdown last year.
There was a lot of talk in Smith’s introductory news conference about challenging the young players to grow this spring.
“Pride is a powerful thing,” he said. “If you challenge a guy from that standpoint I think they’ll respond.”
The middle part of Kentucky’s defense looked stout at this time a season ago, but 2018 brings a host of concerns about depth and personnel at the weakside and middle linebacker spots.
UK will have to replace its most vocal leader and coach on the field in Courtney Love, who was second on the team in tackles last season with 92. Love is the only full-time starter the Cats will be without this fall on defense.
Love’s backup each of the last two seasons, Kash Daniel, looks likely to inherit the spot, but he’s seen limited action at middle linebacker and will need some time to grow and develop. Many of his 26 career tackles have come via special teams. Jamin Davis, a redshirt freshman, probably will see time at that spot as well.
The weakside linebacker spot held by Jordan Jones with Eli Brown as backup seemed solidified with two veteran playmakers who have shown what they can do.
But the unexpected departure of Brown a couple of weeks ago leaves only Jones, whom Stoops has acknowledged needs to be more disciplined and consistent on the field and off. One misstep or injury and Kentucky might be looking at a true or redshirt freshman at a key spot.
Defensive back development
Coaches always say that adding competition to a spot makes all of the players involved better, which probably will be the case at the defensive back positions this season.
Kentucky returns top playmakers and multi-year starters in cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry as well as Lonnie Johnson, who snagged the starting spot from Westry late last year.
But coaches were highly complimentary of multiple redshirt freshmen last season who will make a push to get on the field this season as more than just special teams standouts. Look for highly touted 2017 players like Tyrell Ajian, Yusuf Corker and Michael Nesbitt to make moves in the spring. Their classmate Cedrick Dort played some last season and will try to make a move.
There are others like Stanley Garner and Domonique Williams, who enrolled in the spring to get into the competition, who could help as well.
In all, Kentucky has nearly 20 players who could fill in options nicely in the Cats’ defensive backfield, which should only help UK improve its passing defense, which was among the worst in the nation last year (103rd out of 130), allowing 251.6 yards per game and 21 touchdowns through the air.
The addition of new players, improving players and even some coaching help as Dean Hood moves back to his more natural spot as a secondary coach, are likely to help that group show more dramatic improvement.
Can special teams stay special?
It’s a question mark going into spring that likely won’t be answered until the first few games of the fall. While losing a starting quarterback is big, having to replace a steady place-kicker will be a big key for the Cats, too.
Austin MacGinnis, with his Kentucky-record 359 career points and multiple game-winning kicks, was perhaps the most consistent player on the roster, and now he’s gone. UK’s likely new kicker, Chance Poore, will not be on campus until the summer.
MacGinnis isn’t the only specialist who is gone. The Cats will be breaking in a new punter, choosing between 2016 starter Grant McKinniss, who redshirted last season after losing the starting job to a graduate transfer, and a new Australian punter.
That new punter, sophomore Max Duffy, did arrive early for spring practices to try and get a feel for American football. “Still learning the rules, still learning all the positions and those kinds of things,” Duffy said in January, noting that he’s still getting used to wearing pads and a helmet when he punts.
After a season of watching recent graduate Charles Moushey flash down the field to down punts inside the 10-yard line, UK will be searching for other key role players on special teams who can help flip the field.
Hood, the special teams coordinator, sounded optimistic that there were a lot of those difference makers, especially among the freshmen who redshirted in 2017.
UK football spring practice
When: Monday through April 12 (Three practices per week)
Where: Joe Craft Football Training Center
Notable: All practices closed to public
Key dates: March 23, Pro Day; April 13, Blue-White Spring Game
Off dates: No practices during spring break March 10-19