Mark Story

Questions at two positions could be keeping Mark Stoops awake at night

Kentucky football looking at young players on defense

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops says that the staff is using Citrus Bowl preparation to look at young players on the defensive side of the ball. UK loses several players from a defense that ranked eighth in scoring defense in 2018.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops says that the staff is using Citrus Bowl preparation to look at young players on the defensive side of the ball. UK loses several players from a defense that ranked eighth in scoring defense in 2018.

With Kentucky football spring practice set to commence Monday, Mark Stoops has much on his plate.

Big picture, the Wildcats’ head coach faces the challenge of producing an encore to one of the most successful seasons — a 10-3 record with a Citrus Bowl victory — ever at UK.

Stoops must find a replacement for Benny Snell, the most productive running back in UK history.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell talks about setting the school's career rushing record during UK's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. Snell finished with 144 yards on 26 carries.

UK’s coach also has to figure out a way to replace Josh Allen, the most disruptive edge pass rusher in college football last season.

Kentucky senior outside linebacker Josh Allen has collected numerous postseason awards. As the Wildcats prepare for the Citrus Bowl vs. Penn State on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Allen was asked what he was doing with all his trophies.

None of that, however, should be Stoops’ primary concern when UK takes to the practice field Monday morning. Instead, Kentucky’s most glaring concerns entering 2019 are finding 1.) cornerbacks; 2.) productive wide receivers to complement Lynn Bowden.

The players who, seemingly, spent eons manning the Kentucky defensive backfield are at last exiting.

Strong safety Mike Edwards made 44 career starts for UK. Cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry started 41 and 34 games, respectively.

Free safety Darius West shook off a series of leg injuries to start 24 games. Cornerback Lonnie Johnson transferred from junior college and started 18 games for Kentucky.

A testament to the group’s talent: Baity, Edwards, Johnson and West were all invited to this weekend’s NFL Combine.

Even with all those familiar faces departing, Kentucky still has some experience returning at safety.

Senior-to-be Jordan Griffin started four games last season at nickelback. Junior Davonte Robinson, the ex-Henry Clay star, started twice — once at nickel and once at free safety — and was UK’s sixth-leading tackler (42). Sophomore Tyrell Ajian had a crucial pass interception against Mississippi State.

Davonte.JPG
Kentucky’s Davonte Robinson (9) celebrated after breaking up a pass intended for Mississippi State’s Austin Williams in the Wildcats’ 28-7 win over the Bulldogs last season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

By contrast, UK has only three scholarship cornerbacks returning from last season’s roster — and all three redshirted in 2018.

Sophomore Cedrick Dort sat out last season after appearing in nine games in 2017. Jamari Brown and Stanley Garner are both 6-foot-1 redshirt freshmen from Florida; recruiting service Rivals.com ranked Garner a four-star prospect, Brown a three-star.

Logically, UK’s 2019 recruiting class went heavy on cornerbacks. Junior-college transfer Brandin Echols and high school product Taj Dodson (Union Grove, Ga.) both enrolled early. Cornerbacks Quandre Mosely, a junior college prospect, and high schoolers Jalen Geiger (Columbia, S.C.) and M.J. Devonshire (Aliquippa, Pa.) will join UK this fall.

“We know what we lost in the secondary,” Stoops said last month. “I feel confident with the guys we have on campus, but we needed depth. We needed numbers. We needed some athletes. I feel good about the guys we’ve signed.”

Wide receiver is not as much a question as cornerback because of the return of Bowden. Last season as a sophomore, the 6-1, 195-pound product of Youngstown, Ohio, emerged as a star.

Operating from the slot, Bowden caught 67 passes for 745 yards and five touchdowns. He had two memorable punt-return TDs, one that ignited UK’s comeback victory at Missouri and one that helped the Cats beat Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

bowden.jpg
Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden outran Missouri defenders to score on a punt return that ignited UK’s 15-14 come-from-behind win over the host Tigers. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

There is no other proven wideout on the UK roster, however. That is potentially a large problem.

The power running of Snell is gone. Terry Wilson now has a full season of experience as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. For both reasons, the Cats should enter 2019 looking to get more from a passing attack that was last in the SEC (1,978 yards) in 2018.

To improve that, you will need more than one productive wideout.

With two-year starter Tavin Richardson transferring and the status of junior Zy’Aire Hughes unclear due to an off-the-field issue, juniors Josh Ali (10 catches, 115 yards, one TD) and Isaiah Epps (eight catches, 76 yards) will get another shot to emerge as consistent producers.

A wild card is former Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player Ahmad Wagner. The primary contribution made by the 6-foot-5, 238-pound Wagner last season for UK was drawing pass interference penalties from overmatched DBs.

“We need guys like Josh (Ali) and Isaiah (Epps), they have to step up, Ahmad (Wagner),” Stoops says. “We’ve got to get a lot out of those guys. ... We need some help with those outside receivers, for sure.”

If the upperclassmen do not seize the moment, UK 2018 signees B.J. Alexander, Allen Dailey and Bryce Oliver and/or incoming freshmen DeMarcus Harris (Vero Beach, Fla.) and Tae Tae Crumes (Butler High School) could get early chances to earn spots in the receiving rotation.

Bottom line: UK faces an abundance of uncertainty at one vital position on both its defense and offense.

Whether Stoops can find answers to the questions at cornerback and wide receiver could go far in determining whether Kentucky football can keep the good times rolling in 2019.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.


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