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Five good questions about the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats football team

UK football's four opportunities to have a breakthrough season

In his fifth year coaching football at the University of Kentucky, Mark Stoops has ample opportunity to end negative streaks and make positive history.
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In his fifth year coaching football at the University of Kentucky, Mark Stoops has ample opportunity to end negative streaks and make positive history.

Five good questions about the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats:

1. How does Kentucky replace the lost big-play ability of Boom Williams and Jeff Badet?

A season ago, UK scored 16 offensive touchdowns of 40 yards or more. The players responsible for nine of those — Jeff Badet (four), Boom Williams (three) and Jojo Kemp (two) — are gone.

In the offseason scuttlebutt over how to replace the Cats’ lost explosiveness, much speculation has focused on redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose and true freshman receiver Lynn Bowden. That’s an awful lot of pressure to place on two guys who have yet to play a down of college football, especially since Bowden was late getting cleared to practice by the NCAA clearinghouse.

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Kentucky redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose is one of the players UK hopes will help replace the lost big-play ability of Boom Williams and Jeff Badet. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

2. Can UK get through the season without a divisive quarterback controversy?

Last year, once Stephen Johnson inherited the Kentucky starting quarterback job from an injured Drew Barker after the third game, the junior-college transfer had no reason to look over his shoulder. With Barker sidelined for the season by a back injury, true freshman Gunnar Hoak was the only other scholarship QB on the Kentucky roster.

That meant Johnson could play through mistakes without fear of losing playing time. The quarterback responded by leading Kentucky to seven wins in the 11 games in which he took the predominance of snaps. That included directing game-winning drives in UK’s two biggest victories of the season, over Mississippi State and at No. 11 Louisville.

This year, with Barker healthy, Johnson knows there is a Plan B if he does not improve his ball security (he had three lost fumbles returned for touchdowns in 2016) and his accuracy on short and intermediate passes.

Kentucky’s offensive coaches say Johnson has made those improvements. Nevertheless, with former starter Barker back, what should be a Wildcats positive — improved QB depth — could instead become a divisive distraction for UK if not handled adroitly.

At SEC Football Media Days, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson says the team has more confidence this year.

3. Can Kentucky finally stabilize its interior defensive line play?

SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy went too far in his preseason criticism of Kentucky nose guard Matt Elam, describing the former John Hardin High School star in harsly personal terms as “lazy” and “underachieving.” However, the former Alabama quarterback’s larger point — that UK’s interior defensive line play was not good in 2016 — was valid.

A season ago, UK allowed a whopping 228.2 yards a game on the ground, easily the worst performance against the run during the Mark Stoops era (previous worst was 197.3 yards allowed in 2013). It will be fascinating to see if Elam, whose production (42 career tackles, 20 vs. SEC teams) in his first three years at UK has not matched his recruiting profile, can become part of the solution with a turnaround senior season.

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Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops spoke with Matt Elam during UK football's media day at Kroger Field. A visibly slimmed-down Elam will try to help UK improve an interior defensive front that struggled in 2016. Matt Goins

4. Can UK get the punting straightened out?

A season ago as a true freshman, Grant McKinniss had some good moments, averaging 43.4 yards on five punts at Florida and 44.7 on six kicks at Alabama. However, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Findlay, Ohio, product struggled overall (39.2 yards a kick for the season) and averaged less than 40 yards a kick six times in Kentucky’s final eight games.

“You've seen us punt. We need to do a better job,” Stoops said.

To push McKinniss, Kentucky brought in a graduate transfer, Matt Panton, from the Ivy League’s Columbia University. A native Australian (Melbourne), Panton dropped 17 of his 42 punts for Columbia last season inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

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Kentucky’s Grant McKinniss averaged more than 40 yards a punt only two times in UK’s final eight games in 2016. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

5.) With Nick Haynes’ health concerns, has the offensive line gone from expected strength to an unknown?

The most positive element of Kentucky’s seven-win season in 2016 was the emergence of a stout offensive line. The Wildcats rotated nine players — platooning at every position but center — on the offensive front, and that unit opened holes for two 1,000-yards-plus rushers in Boom Williams (1,170 yards) and Benny Snell (1,091).

With only center Jon Toth and guard Ramsey Meyers departing from the regular playing rotation, the front was expected to be even more a Wildcats team strength entering 2017.

However, due to Type 1 diabetes, returning offensive guard starter Nick Haynes is down to around 260 pounds, 40 below the weight listed for him on the UK roster. Some considered Haynes the best player on Kentucky’s offensive line in 2016, when he says he played most of the year at 275 pounds.

Now, concerns about Haynes’ weight and health add an unanticipated variable for UK in what had been seen as an area of certain strength.

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Kentucky guard Nick Haynes (68), a key to UK’s strong offensive line play in 2016, is down to some 260 pounds as he tries to manage Type 1 diabetes. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

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