UK Football

Breaking down Kentucky’s football team on offense and defense

Coach Mark Stoops, left, talked to offensive coordinator Eddie Gran during a practice last season. Both coaches gave plenty of reason for optimism moving forward this season.
Coach Mark Stoops, left, talked to offensive coordinator Eddie Gran during a practice last season. Both coaches gave plenty of reason for optimism moving forward this season. cbertram@herald-leader.com

Cats on offense

Coordinators: Eddie Gran, third season at Kentucky, 30th season as a college assistant coach, eighth season as an offensive coordinator; and Darin Hinshaw, 18th season as a college assistant coach, seventh as an offensive coordinator.

Position coaches: Eddie Gran, running backs; Darin Hinshaw, quarterbacks; Vince Marrow, tight ends; John Schlarman, offensive line; Michael Smith, wide receivers; Tommy Mangino and Josh Estes-Waugh, quality control assistants; Michael Colosimo, Evan McKissack, offensive graduate assistants.

Scheme: Multiple pro-style.

Last season: Kentucky finished 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 103rd (out of 130) nationally in total offense, averaging 349.8 yards per game. The Cats were 10th in the league in scoring offense, averaging 25.5 points per game.

Returning starters: George Asafo-Adjei, right tackle; Dorian Baker, wide receiver; C.J. Conrad, tight end; Drake Jackson, center; Tavin Richardson, wide receiver; Benny Snell, running back; Bunchy Stallings, right guard; Logan Stenberg, left guard.

What to watch: Kentucky has many familiar, big play-makers back, including running back Benny Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad, wide receivers Dorian Baker and Tavin Richardson, as well as four offensive linemen who have played significant snaps together. There also are some potential weapons — including Lynn Bowden — ready to have a breakout season. But so much of the veteran group’s success hinges on the quarterback and whether or not he can make it go effectively. UK doesn’t necessarily need another leader like Stephen Johnson, but it needs a glue guy under center who can orchestrate it all. Newcomer Terry Wilson was named the starter on Monday.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s spring game on Friday night.

Question marks: Will Wilson emerge and take over ownership of the offense the way Stephen Johnson did? Can Kentucky get enough of a passing game going to free up space for Benny Snell and the other running backs to get big yards on the ground? Will another running back emerge? Is there enough depth on the offensive line after those top four players? Will some consistent go-to players emerge among the wide receivers and reserve tight ends? Can Kentucky, which turned the ball over just 15 times last season, continue that trend?

Outlook: There is a veteran group back, including some elite Southeastern Conference talent in Snell and Conrad, as well as players who have the potential to change the game if they can rise to the occasion like Baker, Richardson, Bowden and Justin Rigg, a tight end. But the Cats are going to need Wilson to step up and become a game manager as well as a potential play-maker, especially at key moments. Some of UK’s biggest wins came because of big, unexpected plays from Stephen Johnson in the past. UK can’t just rely on its ground game to win close games in the Southeastern Conference. It’s hard to tell right now if the passing game is going to take off, too.

Despite having 17 starters back from last season’s bowl team, Kentucky football is being picked near the bottom of its division. At SEC Football Media Days, UK head coach Mark Stoops was asked if his team was not getting enough respect.

Cats on defense

Coordinator: Matt House, third season at Kentucky and second as its coordinator after previous coordinator stops at Pittsburgh and Florida International.

Position coaches: Steve Clinkscale, defensive backs; Dean Hood, safeties/special teams coordinator; Matt House, inside linebackers; Derrick LeBlanc, defensive line; Brad White, outside linebackers; Dillon Sanders and Josh Pruitt, quality control assistants; Courtney Love and Maxwell Smith, defensive graduate assistants.

Scheme: Multiple.

Last season: Kentucky finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference and 92nd in the nation in total defense, allowing 426.9 yards per game. The Cats allowed opponents to average 28.2 points per game last season, eighth in the league.

Returning starters: Josh Allen, defensive end/outside linebacker; Quinton Bohanna, nose guard; Derrick Baity, cornerback; T.J. Carter, defensive end; Mike Edwards, safety; Lonnie Johnson, cornerback; Jordan Jones, weakside linebacker; Adrian Middleton, defensive tackle; Darius West, safety.

What to watch: Kentucky returns all but two starters from last season’s defense, which struggled statistically, finishing No. 12 in the SEC overall by allowing 426.9 yards per game. So many of UK’s statistical problems stemmed from an inconsistent interior line, which promises to be much improved this season with more depth and athleticism. The Cats have five of their top six — and 13 of their top 17 — tacklers back, but they’re replacing veteran linebackers on the outside in Denzil Ware (47 tackles, nine for a loss) and inside in Courtney Love (92 tackles) and Eli Brown (38 tackles). The players replacing them are going to have to get settled in quickly. The secondary had a crisis of confidence at times last season, but seems much more comfortable this preseason.

UKFBC
Kentucky defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc, center, watched as defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna, right, worked during spring practice. “Great defenses in this league are dominated by defensive linemen,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “And we are getting much better. I feel much more solid.” Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Question marks: Can Kentucky’s defense continue to make improvements against the run after going from allowing 228.2 yards per game in 2016 to 175.3 yards per game last year? Can it reverse course in pass defense, when UK went from one of the top five in the Southeastern Conference in 2016 to second-from-the-bottom a year ago? Does UK have enough consistent depth if there are injuries at the linebacker spots, where it lost several key players from last season? Will the defensive line make the push this season that coaches are anticipating?

Outlook: A longtime defensive coordinator before he became a head coach, Mark Stoops has said in multiple ways this off-season that UK’s defense just hasn’t been good enough in his five seasons. After fixing some of the problems stopping the run two years ago, the Cats then had problems in pass defense. This could be the year they figure out how to put it all together thanks to a much more stout and experienced defensive line. If Kentucky can get more pressure from its front seven players — notably Josh Allen and a healthy Jordan Jones — it could allow for more forced turnovers by a secondary that showed in 2016 that it is versatile and skilled.

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