Hold it. Savor it. Squeeze it until it pops. Nearly 70 years separate the last time a Kentucky football team won 10 games and a New Year’s Day bowl in the same season. Bear Bryant’s Cats did it in 1950. Mark Stoops’ Cats did it in 2018. Who knows when such grid delight shall pass UK’s way again.
It probably won’t be next season. Not to rain on Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl champions parade, but 2019 will come with big shoes to fill. Josh Allen will be gone. Benny Snell will be gone. Also missing will be numerous teammates, many of them key to the rise from 2-10 in Stoops’ 2013 debut to 10-3 in 2018.
The last time Kentucky won 10 games was 1977, of course. (I know, you’ve heard.) Then star defensive end Art Still graduated. So did quarterback Derrick Ramsey. The next season, Fran Curci’s club slipped to 4-6-1. I’m not saying 2019 promises a similar drop-off. I am saying 10 wins is a high bar.
Kentucky returned 17 starters in 2018. That number shrinks to 10 next season. Going by the Citrus Bowl depth chart, I count six on offense — quarterback Terry Wilson, wide receiver Lynn Bowden, wide receiver Tavin Richardson, center Drake Jackson, left guard Logan Stenberg and left tackle E.J. Price. I count four on defense — outside linebacker Boogie Watson, nose guard Quinton Bohanna, defensive end T.J. Carter and linebacker Kash Daniel.
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Bowden is a budding star. He caught 67 passes his sophomore season, including a key 54-yard catch-and-run in Tuesday’s second half. First half, Bowden merely ran a punt back 58 yards for the game’s first touchdown. It was his second punt return TD of the season. He returned just five all season.
Wilson is the key, however. The junior-college transfer started all 13 games at quarterback in 2018. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes. He threw for 11 touchdowns compared to eight interceptions. He also rushed for 547 yards and four scores.
Like most first-year starters, however, Wilson was inconsistent. He showcased raw talent one play, indecisiveness the next. With a season under his belt, it will be interesting to see the strides Wilson can make. He’ll be expected to carry more of the load in 2019.
As a senior, Daniel will be the defensive leader in 2019. No one bleeds more blue than the emotional Paintsville native. He’s also a pretty darn good linebacker. In his first year as a starter, the junior finished third on the team in tackles. Problem is, the two in front of him (Allen and Darius West) and the two behind him (Mike Edwards and Jordan Jones) on the tackles list will all be gone.
There is talent waiting in the wings. Promising linebackers Chris Oats and Deandre Square, both true freshmen this year, will get more time to shine. Stoops will have to reshape his secondary without Edwards, Derrick Baity, Darius West, Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry. The defensive line could be a strength, however, thanks to Bohanna, Carter, Watson, Calvin Taylor, Phil Hoskins, Kordell Looney and hopefully a healthy Josh Paschal. And to compete in the SEC, a strong defensive line is a must.
To win consistently, the same goes for a strong culture. That is Kentucky football’s best hope for 2019. The core group of seniors behind this memorable season had to pretty much make it on their own. When they arrived on campus, Stoops’ program was still in the beginning stages. There were no peers there to show them the way.
That’s changed now. An example has been set, a standard established. Younger players saw how older players went about their business in the weight room, the film room and on the practice field. Best of all, the younger players saw the results.
“You hear your coaches correcting you so much, and you take that to heart,” Daniel said Tuesday. “But there’s just something about when your teammates are like, ‘Hey, get this right.’ You’re like, ‘OK, I got ya.’ Because that’s your brother.”
And something that bodes well for the future.
2019 UK football schedule
(Home games in capital letters)
Aug. 31: TOLEDO
Sept. 7: EASTERN MICHIGAN
Sept. 14: FLORIDA
Sept. 21: At Mississippi State
Sept. 28: At South Carolina
Oct. 12: ARKANSAS
Oct. 19: At Georgia
Oct. 26: MISSOURI
Nov. 9: TENNESSEE
Nov. 16: At Vanderbilt
Nov. 23: UT MARTIN
Nov. 30: LOUISVILLE