How Kentucky and Central Michigan match up at each position — with a game prediction:
Junior-college transfer Terry Wilson should bring a dynamic running threat to the Kentucky offense. How efficiently the 6-foot-3, 205-pound redshirt sophomore will throw the ball will be key. A season ago, Wilson completed a so-so 57.3 percent of his passes at Garden City Community College in Kansas with 11 interceptions. Wilson also threw double-digit picks (11 as a senior, 10 as a junior) in his final two seasons at Oklahoma’s Del City High School. Central Michigan’s Tony Poljan is a 6-7, 235-pound dual threat who played some wide receiver in 2017. Poljan has thrown only 21 career passes at CMU. In high school, he was the 2015 Gatorade Michigan Player of the Year after throwing for over 6,000 career yards at Lansing Catholic. Ex-Fort Thomas Highlands QB Austin Hergott, a redshirt freshman, is a CMU backup.
Kentucky star Benny Snell enters his junior season needing 1,412 yards to pass Sonny Collins (3,835) as UK’s all-time rushing leader. Only two prior Cats, Moe Williams (1,600 in 1995) and Artose Pinner (1,414 in 2002), have ever run for that many yards in a season. Sophomore A.J. Rose will try to build off his stellar showing (134 yards, three TDs) in the UK spring game. Central Michigan star Jonathan Ward is one of the most versatile backs in the nation. He ran for 1,019 yards and caught 48 passes last season. Kumehnnu Gwilly, at 6-2, 246 pounds, is the Chippewas’ power back.
Kentucky senior Dorian Baker returns after missing all last season with an ankle injury. As a sophomore in 2015, the 6-3, 205-pound Baker led UK with 55 receptions. Kentucky is counting on slot receiver Lynn Bowden (17 catches in 2017) to emerge as a big-play threat as a sophomore. Central Michigan’s wide-out corps was decimated by graduation. Converted running back Devon Spalding, a 5-11 senior, and Brandon Childress, a junior who is returning from a season-ending knee injury, will try to step into the void.
UK will try again to find a way to consistently get the ball to talented senior tight end C.J. Conrad. The 6-5, 252-pound product of LaGrange, Ohio, has yet to catch as many as 20 passes in a college season. Junior Justin Rigg came on late last season and caught two passes in UK’s Music City Bowl loss to Northwestern. Central Michigan’s Logan Hessbrook, a former walk-on, caught 10 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown in three games last season before his year was ended by a concussion.
With the season-ending knee injury suffered by Landon Young, Kentucky will be breaking in a left tackle, either redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins or USC transfer E.J. Price, who has never played in a college game. Otherwise, Kentucky has four offensive line starters back, led by one of the best guard duos in the SEC in Logan Stenberg and Bunchy Stallings. Central Michigan left guard Shakir Carr, a 6-4, 308-pound senior, has started a combined 17 games the past two seasons. Center Steve Eipper, a 6-4, 286-pound junior, made nine starts last season at guard.
Kentucky sophomore Quinton Bohanna took over as the Cats’ starting nose guard over last season’s final five games. Mark Stoops and Co. believe the 6-4, 340-pound product of Cordova, Tenn., has a chance to become a standout. A veteran, productive Central Michigan defensive front is led by by seniors in tackle Nathan Brisson-Fast (36 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) and left end Mitch Stanitzek (39 tackles, seven TFL, 3.5 sacks) and junior end Mike Danna (54 tackles, 8.5 TFL, four sacks).
Advantage: Central Michigan
Kentucky expects OLB/rush end Josh Allen (65 tackles, 9.5 TFL, seven sacks) to be one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the country as a senior. After an injury-plagued junior season, senior WLB Jordan Jones will look to recapture the form of his stellar sophomore year (109 tackles). Junior MLB Kash Daniel, the ex-Paintsville star, will make his first career start. Central Michigan seniors Malik Fountain (89 tackles last season) and Alex Briones (83 tackles, 8.5 TFL) headline a stout LB crew.
Senior safety Mike Edwards leads a UK secondary stacked with veterans. Cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry will look for redemptive senior seasons after challenging junior campaigns. Central Michigan led the nation in interceptions (19) during the 2017 regular season. Junior CB Sean Bunting (five picks in 2017) is the top returnee, but watch out for CB Xavier Crawford, a graduate transfer from Oregon State. In 2016, Crawford started 12 games for the Beavers and made 70 tackles.
Kentucky will break in a new place-kicker (senior Miles Butler), new kickoff man (redshirt sophomore Grant McKinniss), new punter (Australian Max Duffy), and a new punt returner (senior David Bouvier, the ex-Lexington Catholic star). Central Michigan returns standouts in senior punter Jack Sheldon (43.4 yards a kick last season) and junior kickoff returner Jerrod Davis, who had a 98-yard touchdown return against Kent State last season. Senior place-kicker Michael Armstrong was 7-of-11 on field goals in 2017, but was only 2-of-6 from outside 30 yards.
Advantage: Central Michigan
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory