The offseason has not been kind to Kentucky’s football Wildcats.
Since the final second ticked off in UK’s 33-18 TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia Tech last New Year’s Eve, Kentucky has lost its 1.) leading rusher; 2.) its “stretch-the-field” wide receiver; 3.) its starting left offensive tackle; and 4.) an improving interior defensive lineman who had become a late-season starter.
But 1.) turned pro early; 2.) left as a graduate transfer; 3.) suffered a season-ending knee injury; and 4.) was dismissed from the team.
If that were not enough, starting left guard Nick Haynes — arguably the best player on a stout UK offensive line a season ago — has undergone a weight loss to some 260 pounds as he continues to manage Type I diabetes.
Then, in a scrimmage this past Saturday, senior-to-be wide receiver Dorian Baker, UK’s 2015 leader in receptions (55), suffered a fracture-dislocation in his left ankle. He might be out for the year, too.
So if Mark Stoops and his troops are going to better last season’s seven wins — or match it — they will have to overcome the loss of several core players that had eligibility remaining.
Can they do it? It says something about how Stoops and his staff have recruited that none of the unexpected player losses, taken in isolation, should be a season-killer.
Sure, UK lost Williams and his 1,170 yards rushing; but it still has Benny Snell, who produced 1,091 yards on the ground in 2016 as a true freshman despite not carrying the ball in the season’s first two games.
Without the injured Mosier at left tackle, Kentucky still has Landon Young, a five-star recruit in the 2016 class, who as a true frosh essentially split snaps with Mosier last season.
Minus Badet and his team-best 21.6 yards a catch, the Wildcats still have Garrett Johnson, last year’s team leader in catches (39).
Plus, Kentucky offensive coaches have seemed almost giddy over the preseason camp performance of their five true freshmen wideouts, a group that includes the lavishly hyped Lynn Bowden plus Clevan Thomas, a player UK thought enough of to give the No. 18 that Jacob Tamme, Randall Cobb and Boom Williams wore with distinction.
Yet here’s the rub: What will be the cumulative effect of losing so many key players who could still be playing for Kentucky in 2017?
Part of what made Kentucky’s running game so effective last season was the complementary two-back tandem of Williams, a fleet scatback, and Snell, a pile-mover.
Without Williams — who, after going undrafted, was cut Sunday from his free-agent bid to make the Cincinnati Bengals, then was signed Monday by the Denver Broncos — there is no proven back to go with Snell.
Part of what made Kentucky’s offensive line so effective last season was the ability to rotate nine players in and out as UK two-platooned every position but center.
Now, with the certain loss of Mosier and the uncertainty that surrounds Haynes, Kentucky’s offensive front does not enter 2017 seeming nearly as deep as it ended 2016.
The virtue of Kentucky’s wide receiving corps last season was balance. Had Badet returned and with a healthy Baker, UK would have had three of its four most productive wide receivers in 2016 back.
Now, Kentucky will enter 2017 with only Garrett Johnson as a proven performer.
After starting at nose guard, Bell (who would have been returning from knee surgery after being injured against Georgia Tech) had six tackles in UK’s stunning upset of No. 11 Louisville in last year’s regular-season finale.
Now, his absence removes an experienced player from the area of the Kentucky team, defensive line, that is the biggest question mark entering 2017.
Taken all together, the premature player losses do not mean Kentucky can’t or won’t make it back to a bowl game.
It does make the odds of a Big Blue breakthrough — winning eight or more games in a regular season for the first time since 1984; winning the SEC East for the first time ever — seem far longer.
So, if things don’t go as well for the Cats in 2017 as hoped, UK fans will point to the personnel losses before this year’s opening kickoff as the latest evidence that, if it weren’t for bad luck, it seems Kentucky football would have no luck at all.