Ten questions and answers as Kentucky heads into its football season opener on Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette at the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium:
Question: How vital is it for Kentucky to make a bowl game in Coach Mark Stoops' third season?
Answer: The players talk as if it's bowl or bust for them, especially after getting so close last season. But neither Stoops nor his boss have put out a must-wins total. The head coach just wants to see improvement. "Just improvement across the board," he said. "You know I'm not going to fall into that trap that some of our players have." Stoops wants to see more consistency on both sides of the ball and thinks wins will take care of themselves. If going to a bowl is what pushes the team, though, he's fine with that. "As I told them, if that's what motivates you, then put your money where your mouth is, and when things get tough later on down the road let's be consistent and go to work every day to get better," he said. Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said before the season that he didn't think a wins number was fair to ask. He fell back on the word progress. But for significant progress, UK needs to get back to a bowl for the first time since 2010 to hold on to a high-level 2016 recruiting class and build toward a bigger future.
Q: After going 2-10 and 5-7 in his first two seasons, is there any scenario under which Stoops' job could be in jeopardy?
A: No. Behind the scenes, Stoops has been a huge fundraiser to get the new $45 million practice facility built and push the program into the future. Barnhart seems plenty comfortable with Stoops and staff, granting all of them long-term contracts for more money than UK has ever spent on football previously. It would take a major negative incident or another two-win season for Stoops to feel any heat from his administration this season.
Q: Will we see the Patrick Towles of last season's first six games (5-1), its last six games (0-6) or neither?
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A: Towles threw 71 percent of his touchdown passes in the first six games last season and generated 57 percent of his yardage. He passed for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns last year while running for 303 yards and six scores but struggled near the end of the season, not throwing a TD in his final two games. To make matters worse, Towles' worst percentage of the season (and two of his 10 interceptions) came in the finale against Louisville. But coaches are quick to point out that all those troubles didn't fall solely on the quarterback. Towles spent most of his offseason working on accuracy, footwork and decision making, and reportedly has made significant improvement in those areas. It can only help that he has seven or eight legitimate receiver targets and is behind a line that returns four of five starters from last season. It will be interesting to see what Towles can accomplish with all of the pieces in place. And he's keenly aware that Drew Barker is waiting in the wings should things not go as well as expected.
Q: Will Kentucky try to get Drew Barker meaningful minutes at quarterback?
A: There is no question that Barker, a redshirt freshman, pushed Towles in the spring and fall quarterback competitions and that coaches are eager to get him some playing time. If something should happen to Towles, coaches would prefer not to send in Barker without a single collegiate snap. This week, Stoops said he would like to see Barker get a series in the season opener, even if the game is close. "I'd like to early, when the game's on the line," Stoops said. "But we will see about that." Offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said he would love to get Barker into some games, but it would depend on how the games are going.
Q: Now that UK has reduced the capacity of Commonwealth Stadium to 61,000, will it start selling out games again?
A: There was the whole, rebuild it and they will come mentality, but it seems to be about more than the stadium for Kentucky fans, who have seen increased ticket prices. It's possible the opener versus Louisiana-Lafayette with the new stadium on display will be a sellout — the Cats' first since the Georgia game in 2010 — but it's not guaranteed. If the product on the field starts to look as new and shiny as the stadium, fans will return in force. But for now, they seem to be waiting to see.
Q: How exactly will Kentucky replace the production of NFL Draft picks Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith?
A: Committee and scheme. The subtle shift to a 3-4 defensive front last season has meant the applied pressure usually reserved for a Bud Dupree can come from just about any position. Kentucky also thinks it has more depth, speed and athleticism than ever in the defensive front, which should help make up some of the difference. It's not going to be easy to replace the production of Dupree and Smith, who were second and third on the team in tackles and combined for 135 tackles, including 20 for loss and 12 sacks last season. UK is having to rely on a lot less-experienced players to anchor the defense. The players who do have some know-how, such as returning starter Melvin Lewis, Farrington Huguenin, Regie Meant, C.J. Johnson and Matt Elam, can carry some of the load with hybrid defensive end/linebacker types like Jabari Johnson and Jason Hatcher. But the Cats are going to need big-time production from players who haven't played much — or not at all — in junior-college standout Courtney Miggins and redshirt and true freshmen like Denzil Ware, Adrian Middleton, Kengera Daniel and Tymere Dubose. There will be some growing pains early, but coaches feel better about depth and athleticism at those spots than they have in the past.
Q: How many true freshmen are going to play in 2015, and who are they?
A: Stoops has made it clear he doesn't mind playing true freshmen if they're ready to go: Think Stanley "Boom" Williams. And even though it often has been out of necessity, Stoops has played tons of true freshmen in his first two seasons. Last season, UK played nine true freshmen (seven on offense, two on defense). The season before that, Kentucky played eight true freshmen (four on offense, four on defense). This season more true freshmen might see the field than in either of those first two seasons. Four of them (tight end C.J. Conrad, kick returner Sihiem King, right tackle George Asafo-Adjei and cornerback Chris Westry) are penciled in for starting spots, with several other true freshmen in prominent places on the depth chart. Those likely to play this season include defensive end/linebacker Kengera Daniel, cornerback Derrick Baity and linebackers Josh Allen, Eli Brown and Jordan Jones.
Q: When the lights come on Saturday night, what will we most notice is different about this year's team?
A: Two full seasons in the high-performance system have been positive for Kentucky's players, who look more the part of Southeastern Conference athletes. "Physically, we look a lot better," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "We're going to be a lot faster and we're going to be a lot stronger." But the biggest point of growth for the Cats might not be something that is immediately noticeable when the lights come on Saturday night, coaches and players said. "They're going to see a little more mental toughness out of us," Towles said. "There's no secret, last year we kind of fell off toward the end. There's no denying that. I don't think that's a possibility this year." Stoops and the Cats' new offensive coordinator also have said at different times this preseason that the Cats are more equipped to deal with adversity. "We're going to face adversity multiple times this year, but it's going to be about how quickly we can get back up and punch them in the mouth," Towles said.
Q: Kentucky lost 41-3 to LSU, 50-16 to Tennessee and 63-31 to Georgia last season. Are we done with the blowouts?
A: Despite the blowouts — which mostly came at a rough part of the schedule when UK had played more than a handful of consecutive games — Kentucky was much closer to opponents in the scoring column last season. In Stoops' first season, Kentucky was outscored by an average of 10.7 points a game versus last season, when it was two points a game (31.2 points for opponents and 29.2 points for UK). So Kentucky is edging closer to keeping games closer. The schedule includes eight home games and only four road trips this season. Plus, the Cats have a bye (Oct. 10) leading into their Thursday night game against Auburn (Oct. 15) and extra time to prepare for the ensuing game at Mississippi State (Oct. 24). This isn't to say blowouts aren't going to happen. UK is still battling some youth at key positions, especially on the defensive end, but the Cats should keep it more competitive.
Q: At what position can Kentucky least afford injuries this season?
A: Kentucky has built up some comfortable depth at almost every spot on the field, especially on offense, where Dawson said he's comfortable going two deep at every position. The defense's depth has grown infinitely at cornerback and safety, two positions that plagued UK in Stoops' first two seasons. But with a defense that is shifting more toward a 3-4 front, the Cats need plenty of linebackers. And that spot has been depleted by attrition, injury, illness and suspensions more than any other this offseason. The Cats have some proven leaders in Ryan Flannigan (who has been injured) and Josh Forrest, but there is a lot of youth behind those players and at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spots. If one or two of those players don't perform at a high enough level, it could be a big problem for Kentucky.