Mark Stoops seemed in a light mood when he met with the media Tuesday at the annual Governor’s Cup Luncheon.
Asked about the new NCAA officiating emphasis that promises to penalize coaches if they go onto the field to argue calls, Stoops — who can get worked up during games — made a joke.
“That was not put in for me,” the Kentucky coach cracked.
Stoops has ample reason to feel upbeat. Last year, after an 0-2 start that had the then-fourth-year coach’s job security being debated, Kentucky won seven of its final 10 regular-season games.
UK made its first bowl appearance since 2010. Kentucky (7-6) had its first winning season since 2009. The Cats won four SEC games for the first time since 2006. UK beat benchmark programs Louisville, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the same season for the first time since 1998.
The positivity continued into the offseason. Stoops secured a 2017 recruiting class ranked No. 26 in the country by Rivals.com. The coach agreed to a two-year contract extension with UK that runs through 2022.
Yet amidst the UK football good vibrations, there are some dark clouds with the potential to block the emerging sun. For Stoops to keep UK on an upward arc in 2017, answers will have to be found in three worrisome areas.
Worry one: Big-play explosiveness
In 2016, Kentucky’s offense scored 16 touchdowns of 40 yards or more. Guys responsible for nine of those field-stretching TDs — Jeff Badet (4), Boom Williams (3) and Jojo Kemp (2) — will not be on the UK roster in 2017.
The Cats knew they would lose Kemp, a senior running back, but Williams and Badet both left Lexington with a season of eligibility remaining.
After leading UK in rushing (1,170 yards) last season, Williams put his name in the NFL draft. The scatback was not selected, however, and is trying to make the Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent.
Badet was UK quarterback Stephen Johnson’s favorite deep target and led Kentucky in yards per catch (21.6 on 31 receptions). Yet the speedy wideout earned his UK degree this spring, hit the exit out of town and will play his final season as a graduate transfer for Oklahoma.
“I hated to lose him,” Stoops said. “I hate to put in that kind of work with somebody to bring them along and to lose him.”
Since Boom and Badet departed, redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose and true freshman wide receiver Lynn Bowden have been mentioned as players most likely to replace UK’s lost explosiveness. That’s a lot of weight, however, to put on two guys who have yet to play one down of college football.
Worry two: The wide receivers
Without Badet, UK returns only two proven wideouts — and both of them enter the season with questions to answer.
Entering his senior year, Garrett Johnson has produced five monster games (119 receiving yards or more) in his UK career. The 5-foot-11, 175 pounder led the ground-oriented Cats in receptions (39) last year.
However, the senior from Winter Garden, Fla., has never displayed the consistency of a true “No. 1 receiver.” Last season, he caught three or fewer passes in nine games.
Dorian Baker led Kentucky in receptions (55) in 2015 but was slowed by a hamstring issue last season. The 6-3, 211-pound senior ended 2016 by making a diving TD catch in UK’s upset at Louisville and also made a nice touchdown reception in the loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
UK needs both Baker and Johnson to find their best selves as seniors. There is no other returning wideout on the Kentucky roster who registered double-digit receptions in 2016.
Worry three: The interior defensive line
With Alvonte Bell dismissed from the UK team for a violation of team rules, this marks the second straight year Kentucky has lost a projected starter from its defensive line during the preseason. Last August, Regie Meant left UK to “deal with a personal issue.” He ultimately transferred to Jacksonville State.
Bell, a junior-college transfer, started four games last season. He had six tackles in UK’s win at Louisville.
Without him, Kentucky enters 2017 with only junior defensive tackle Adrian Middleton (35 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) and senior nose guard Naquez Pringle (39 tackles, 2 TFL) as proven commodities among its interior defensive linemen.
That’s not a real comfortable scenario for a program that aspires to upward mobility in the SEC.
Of course, it would not be an authentic Kentucky football summer if there weren’t vital areas worthy of fretting.