Mark Story

The 4 questions Mark Stoops and UK football must answer to take the next step in 2018

It is not an “Orwellian nightmare” to say the specter of 1984 haunts the Kentucky football program.

Since Coach Jerry Claiborne’s Hall of Fame Bowl champions went 9-3 in 1984, the Wildcats have never again won nine games in a season.

Among Power 5 conference programs, only Indiana has gone longer (1967) without a nine-win season than Kentucky.

In 2018, UK Coach Mark Stoops will have 17 starters back from last season’s team (7-6) that made Kentucky’s second straight bowl appearance.

To have a viable chance at finally crossing the “1984 barrier,” however, Stoops and his troops will have to find answers to four critical questions.

1.) Who will replace Stephen Johnson as Kentucky’s starting quarterback?

Friday night’s Blue-White Game highlighted what is at stake in the quarterback battle between redshirt sophomores Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson.

In his first drive of the second half, Hoak showed what a UK attack led by him would look like at its best.

The 6-foot-4, 206-pound pocket passer from Dublin, Ohio, led a 65-yard touchdown drive by completing seven of nine passes for 57 yards with an 8-yard scoring pass to Joshua Ali.

Terry Wilson 2018 Spring
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) threw for a game-high 131 yards in UK’s Blue-White Spring Game on Friday while completing 10 of 24 passes with one interception. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore from Oklahoma City, a junior-college transfer who started his college career at Oregon, is battling redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak to be UK’s starting QB in 2018. Alex Slitz
Gunnar Hoak 2018 Spring Game
Kentucky redshirt sophomore quarterback Gunnar Hoak (12) completed 14 of 25 passes for 121 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions in UK’s Blue-White Spring Game on Friday. The 6-foot-4, 206-pound product of Dublin, Ohio, is battling junior-college transfer Terry Wilson to be Kentucky’s starting QB. Alex Slitz

Conversely, two Blue-White Game plays from Wilson — who transferred to Kentucky from Garden City Community College in Kansas after beginning his career at Oregon — showed the very different dimension he would bring.

Late in the second quarter, the 6-3, 205-pound QB exploded around left end on a called running play that would have gone for a 58-yard touchdown in a live game (as opposed to the Blue-White scrimmage, where QBs were ruled down on touch).

On Wilson’s first drive of the third quarter, the QB faced a third-and-10 from his own 35. Forced from the pocket, he rolled out and while running all-out threw a dart that went for a 24-yard gain to Brett Slusher.

Polished pocket passer or dynamic dual threat? Who emerges as Kentucky starting quarterback will ultimately come down to what direction the Wildcats’ brain trust wants the offense to take.

2.) Does Kentucky have an outside receiver that can stress a defense over the top?

Last season, UK never replaced the stretch-the-field capability that Jeff Badet gave the 2016 Wildcats before he graduate-transferred to Oklahoma.

In the Blue-White Game, redshirt sophomore Zy’Aire Hughes, the former McCracken County star, flashed some playmaking potential. Playing with the second-team offense, the 6-1, 182-pound wideout caught four passes for a game-high 56 yards with a touchdown catch.

Zy'Aire Hughes 2018
Former McCracken County star Zy’Aire Hughes (13) celebrated after catching a 19-yard touchdown pass from Walker Wood in Kentucky’s 2018 Blue-White Spring Game. “Zy’Aire ... has some juice and he has some speed and he can get open,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. Alex Slitz

Since coming to Kentucky, Hughes has switched from wideout to defensive back and now back to receiver.

“Pleased with Zy’Aire because he has some juice, he has some speed, he can get open,” Stoops said.

3.) Can UK get its porous run defense fixed?

As Kentucky lost its final three games of 2017, the Wildcats’ run defense was gashed. Georgia ran for 381 yards on the Cats, Louisville 346 and Northwestern 333 in the Music City Bowl.

The SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic illustrates how important it is for UK to get its run defense fortified with some telling numbers:

In the seven games Kentucky won last year, it surrendered an average of 94.3 yards per game on the ground.

For the six contests UK lost, opponents ran for an average of 269.8 yards a game.

Joshua Paschal
Kentucky sophomore defensive lineman Joshua Paschal returned to the field as a starter on Saturday, four months after being diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on the bottom of his foot this summer. Charles Bertram Herald-Leader file photo

4.) Will Kentucky find new kickers it can depend on?

Over four years, Austin MacGinnis produced the best place-kicking career in Wildcats football history. As a graduate transfer last season, Australian Matt Panton solidified a Cats punting game that had been shaky in 2016.

Both will be gone in 2018.

Another Australian punter is now vying to succeed Panton. Max Duffy, a 6-1, 194-pound sophomore from Perth, is battling Grant McKinniss, a redshirt sophomore who was UK’s starting punter in 2016.

In the Blue-White Game, Duffy had the better average (44 yards on four kicks), but McKinniss (36.7 on three punts) was more effective stopping kicks inside the 20 (two vs. zero for Duffy).

Max Duffy
Max Duffy is competing to succeed Matt Panton and give the Kentucky Wildcats their second straight starting punter from Australia. Mark Mahan

To fill the place-kicker vacancy, UK signed well-regarded Chance Poore out of Anderson, S.C. However, don’t sleep on senior walk-on Miles Butler.

The Paducah Tilghman product filled in for an injured McGinnis in 2015 and hit all four of his field-goal attempts. Forced into duty last season as the emergency punter at Vanderbilt, Butler stopped all three of his kicks inside the Vandy 20.

In 2018, any aspiration Kentucky football has of finally again crossing “the 1984 threshold” relies on finding capable kickers.