Kentucky football’s season isn’t done. Bowl preparation is on tap, the reward for a successful campaign. Success comes in steps. With seven wins, Kentucky took a significant step forward.
Still, we can’t help but peek beyond the bowl to 2017 when Kentucky should be in position to take another step forward and them some.
A look at the depth chart heading into last Saturday’s 41-38 win at Louisville, shows just five seniors (center Jon Toth, wide receiver Ryan Timmons, defensive end Courtney Miggins, nickelback Blake McClain, safety Marcus McWilson) listed among the 24 starting positions.
Meanwhile, nine of the remaining 19 were sophomores. Right guard Bunchy Stallings and tight end C.J. Conrad were sophomore starters on offense. Strongside linebacker Josh Allen, defensive tackle Adrian Middleton, defensive end Denzil Ware, linebacker Jordan Jones, cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry, plus strong safety Mike Edwards were all sophomore starters on defense.
“Our players are young,” said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot after the win at Louisville. “This is a group of young men who came to this program believing in the future and they all still have a lot of future left. A bright future.”
Kentucky could have as many as eight senior starters on offense in 2017, though it will be interesting to see what 1,135-yard rusher Boom Williams decides about his future. Given the short shelf life of NFL running backs, Williams might decide to take the jump, joining fellow back and senior leader Jojo Kemp.
We do know another important junior will return, however. Quarterback Stephen Johnson saved the season when he replaced the injured Drew Barker after the first series of the third game. With Johnson taking a majority of the snaps, Kentucky went 7-3. Even if Barker returns fully healthy from back surgery, Johnson will be hard to displace.
Garrett Johnson, who led the team with 36 receptions, will be back. Jeff Badet, whose 639 receiving yards led the team, will return. Dorian Baker, who was hampered by injuries the first half of the season but caught the big 35-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass at Louisville, should also return.
They’ll be joined by Benny Snell, who rushed for a record-setting 1,057 yards as a freshman. Sihiem King should see a bigger role in the running game next season. The coaches are high on freshman A.J. Rose, who redshirted.
UK loses one offensive line starter, though the most important, in Toth. Still, the Cats built unusual depth along the front while rushing for the most yards per game (241.2) by a UK offense since 1994 (272.2).
Where the Cats have real room for optimism is on defense. Jones is a star in the making. Ware and Allen proved effective pass rushers off the edge. Defensive tackles Middleton and Tymere Dubose both improved. Freshman linebacker Kash Daniel earned valuable playing time behind junior Courtney Love. Head coach Mark Stoops must find replacements for McClain and McWilson, but then the secondary is Stoops’ specialty.
Aside from a shaky punting game, Kentucky’s special teams were improved in 2016. Maybe the Most Valuable Cat to the bowl effort will also be back. Austin MacGinnis beat Mississippi State with a 51-yard field goal at the final horn. It was his 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds left that beat Louisville.
Afterward, the fourth-year junior talked about the players who worked to put Kentucky in that position. MacGinnis said he was just glad to do his part.
Next year, Kentucky should be in position to step forward once again.
Kentucky football returning starters for 2017
Starters who will be seniors:
OT: Cole Mosier
OG: Nick Haynes
OT: Kyle Meadows
WR: Garrett Johnson
WR: Jeff Badet
WR: Dorian Baker
QB: Stephen Johnson
RB: Boom Williams
NG: Naquez Pringle
MLB: Courtney Love
Starters who will be juniors
OG: Jervontius “Bunchy” Stallings
TE: C.J. Conrad
LB: Josh Allen
DT: Adrian Middleton
DE: Denzil Ware
LB: Jordan Jones
CB: Derrick Baity
CB: Chris Westry
SS: Mike Edwards
Note: Freshman Benny Snell, who rushed for 1,057 yards, was listed second-team behind Boom Williams. Place-kicker Austin MacGinnis will be a senior in 2017.
Kentucky football 2017 schedule