Football players check into training facility
The oft-repeated line of the offseason for Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops was “the only constant in life is change.”
The UK program has seen plenty of that since the end of last season, including a new $45 million practice facility and an entirely new offense with two new coordinators in Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw.
There has been a seemingly endless coaching carousel that includes new coaches for linebackers, special teams, wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs and defensive backs.
Stoops also discussed a significant “change” that’s a tad more difficult to quantify.
“The biggest change I’m excited about is the culture change within our program,” he said at Southeastern Conference Media Days a month ago. “It’s very easy to change a climate within a program and very difficult to change the culture.”
The head coach went on to say that Kentucky now has a “positive winning culture” going into fall camp, which begins on Friday. But for those wins to show up on the scoreboard, there are plenty of questions to answer. Here are a few:
▪ Quarterbacks: For the first time in the Stoops era at Kentucky, there is not a quarterback battle going into fall camp. “I feel at ease about that position,” he said in June.
At various speaking engagements this offseason, Stoops and his offensive coaches have discussed the benefits of naming Drew Barker the starter (with junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson nipping at his cleats) from both a football and leadership perspective.
QB coach Hinshaw said Barker was “anxious to prove to everybody that he’s the quarterback that will lead this team,” which seemed especially telling.
Has Barker become the steady, consistent leader both on and off the field that UK’s offense has lacked? If he struggles, what are the Cats other options?
▪ Get in line: Kentucky returns four of its five starters on the offensive line, including center Jon Toth. But there are question marks at tackle, including how quickly junior-college transfer Tate Leavitt and true freshman Landon Young can get up to speed and contribute. Can Cole Mosier, who surprised some by being named the starter at left tackle after the spring, hold onto that spot in the fall? Will there be enough depth there to make it through a season?
It’s not just the offensive line with questions to answer about depth and durability.
Matt Elam, Courtney Miggins and Regie Meant — role players last season — have to assume leadership roles. If they struggle, reserves Adrian Middleton, Tymere Dubose and Alvonte Bell will have to get up to speed in a hurry.
A secondary that has what Stoops called “superstars in the making” won’t be able to show that if there’s no pressure up front.
▪ Special teams: The never-ending problems on special teams last season weren’t the fault of one person or unit, but Stoops made sure the group got plenty of special attention this offseason in hopes of eliminating future struggles. There were reality show-style competitions in spring practices and the hiring of an official special teams coordinator in Matt House, who also coaches inside linebackers.
“He brings great passion, great energy, and I’m pleased with what we’ve done in the special teams,” Stoops said this summer.
But there are many questions to be answered this season: Can kicker Austin MacGinnis stay healthy? Hamstring issues limited his effectiveness on kickoffs and extra points last season.
For the first time in four years, UK is breaking in a new punter (likely true freshman Grant McKinniss) and a new long snapper. Can the Cats avoid hiccups at those spots?
It’s been six years since Kentucky scored on a punt return (Randall Cobb in 2010) and seven years since it scored on a kickoff return (Derrick Locke in 2009). Is this the year that changes?
▪ Linebackers: There are serious question marks at both the inside and outside positions. Inside, not a single player on the depth chart has started a game in his career. Behind transfer Courtney Love at middle linebacker is Nico Firios, who has been hampered by injuries, and true freshman Kash Daniel.
UK lost seven of its top eight tacklers from last season, and three of the top five were inside linebackers.
Players such as Jordan Jones and Josh Allen, penciled in as starters at weak-side and strong-side linebacker, had mostly backup roles last season and will have to make big leaps.
“There’s going to be some baptism by fire, no question, but it’s a group that’s athletic, hungry and smart,” inside linebackers coach Matt House said. “As a coach, that’s what you want. You want guys who are hungry to learn, and that’s this group.”
On the perimeter, things can only improve for UK. The Cats were last in the league in sacks with 17 last season, the team’s fewest since 2009. Kentucky was tied for last in the league and was nearly last nationally in tackles for loss (53).
Only one returning player (Denzil Ware) recorded more than two tackles for loss last season.
▪ Wide receivers: Not only did Stoops call out the wide receiver group as underperforming last season, but he also made a coaching change at the position, bringing in Lamar Thomas from Louisville.
Kentucky returns 99.1 percent of its pass catching from last season, and receivers Dorian Baker, Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson are a year older and more mature.
Can they take the next step and show the consistency Stoops demands? Does Thomas add the much-discussed swagger the group seemed to lack last season?
“I want to see results with our wide receivers, by any means necessary,” Stoops said this summer.