Coming off a 10-win season, Mark Stoops has Kentucky football at one of its highest peaks ever. The No. 14 Wildcats finished 10-3 after outlasting No. 12 Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Alas, the two most recent, prior times Kentucky won as many as nine games in a regular season, the Wildcats suffered the dreaded “slip back” into mediocrity the following season:
▪ 1978. Coming off a 10-1 season the prior year, Fran Curci’s 1978 Cats went 4-6-1.
▪ 1985. After going 9-3 and winning the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1984, Jerry Claiborne’s 1985 Wildcats opened their season with a 30-26 upset loss to Bowling Green in Commonwealth Stadium and finished 5-6.
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For the current UK program to overcome a massive loss of star power from its 2018 roster and sustain success in 2019, the Wildcats need to find positive answers to five main questions:
1. How much growth can Terry Wilson make in his second year as Kentucky’s starting quarterback?
A first-year starter on a veteran UK team built to win now, juco-transfer Wilson put together an admirable season in a challenging scenario.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Oklahoma City product completed 67.2 percent of his throws for 1,889 yards and ran for 547 yards. He proved an effective supporting player on a team built around the power rushing of Benny Snell and a stingy defense led by pass-rushing maestro Josh Allen.
For Kentucky to thrive in 2019, however, it will need Wilson to make substantial advancements as a pocket passer and assume more of a leading role for the Cats’ offense.
2. Can Lynn Bowden assume a Randall Cobb-sized role in the UK attack?
Bowden became an emerging star for Kentucky in 2018.
The 6-1, 195-pound slot receiver from Youngstown, Ohio, caught 67 passes for 745 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore. He ran the ball nine times and threw one ill-fated pass (intercepted at Louisville), too.
That comes out to just under six touches from scrimmage a game.
In 2019, UK needs to use Bowden the way Randall Cobb was utilized in Lexington.
During Cobb’s final season as a Cat in 2010, he caught 84 passes, rushed 55 times and threw 10 passes.
That came out to 11.5 touches from scrimmage a game.
In 2019, Bowden needs to have the ball in his hands at least that many times, if not more.
3. Can UK find some dynamic offensive playmakers to aid Wilson and Bowden?
It is two full seasons since Kentucky lost halfback Boom Williams and wide receiver Jeff Badet. Yet the Wildcats still have not filled the roles of home run-hitter from the backfield or deep threat on the outside that Williams and Badet, respectively, played in 2016.
With Snell and his power running game headed to the NFL, it is incumbent on Stoops and offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to find some playmaking capacity in 2019.
Junior-to-be running back A.J. Rose (442 yards rushing as Snell’s understudy in 2018) has shown some home run capability. It is still not clear, however, where Kentucky turns to find an outside receiver who “can take the top off of defenses.”
4. How does Kentucky use Josh Paschal?
As a true freshman in 2017, Paschal had 3.5 QB sacks in limited action as an end/OLB. Coming into his sophomore season, the plan was for the 6-3, 278-pound product of Olney, Md., to bulk up and move to the defensive front three.
Instead, Paschal was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot and did not get to play in a game until the regular season’s 11th week.
Assuming good health, Paschal may have the highest physical upside of any returning UK defender.
The decision for Kentucky is whether to go through with the plan to turn him into a down lineman or to return him to a rush end/OLB role with the idea of using Paschal to replace (some of ) Allen’s pass-rushing threat.
5. Who plays cornerback?
As big a loss as West (85 tackles, team-high three interceptions) and Edwards (82 tackles, nine tackles for loss) are, UK seems in decent shape at safety. Ex-Henry Clay star Davonte Robinson, a junior-to-be; senior-to-be Jordan Griffin; and sophomore-to-be Tyrell Ajian all have some experience at safety.
Conversely, the only underclassman cornerback on the UK depth chart this season, redshirt freshman Michael Nesbitt, is no longer on the Kentucky roster. So incoming junior-college transfers Brandin Echols and Quandre Mosely figure to get long looks.
Finding some viable cornerbacks is job one for Stoops as he attempts to prevent Kentucky football from again enduring the “slip back” in 2019.