Preview 2017: Kentucky Wildcats
Previewing and looking ahead at the Kentucky season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Kentucky Offense
With eight starters returning, the offense that was so good running the ball should be just as explosive and even more impressive despite the loss of top runner Boom Williams and the most dangerous receiver, Jeff Badet.
It all starts with an improved line – even without star C Jon Toth – with four starters back to a group that’s outstanding at paving the way for the ground game. There’s depth, versatility, and size – this is the year everything has been building towards up front.
Stephen Johnson came into his own as a dual-threat quarterback over the second half of last season, highlighted by his brilliant performance in the win over Louisville, and he’ll have plenty of help around him. Williams bolted early, but the combination of Benjamin Snell and rising back Sihiem King should keep the whole thunder-and-lightning thing going behind the veteran line.
Losing Badet stinks, but it’s a deep group of receivers with good size and a nice pair of veterans in Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker to work around.
Biggest Key To The Kentucky Offense
The passing game needs to be more efficient. The running game is too good to not keep pounding away behind the great-looking line, so the passing attack isn’t going to bomb away. However, when Johnson does try to make things happen, there have to be more deep plays and fewer picks.
Drew Barker averaged over nine yards per throw, but he only came up with four touchdown passes with five picks, while Johnson averaged just 7.7 yards per toss. Cut down on the picks, hit a few more home runs, and everything will be fine.
What You Need To Know About The Kentucky Defense
While hardly a rock, and even though it took a step back after a solid 2015, the defense was good enough against the mediocre offenses. Now it should be far better – at least in theory – with nine starters back.
The running game is the team’s strength, but the linebacking corps might not be all that far behind as the season goes on. Jordan Jones is an all-around killer on the outside, while Courtney Love in the middle and Josh Allen on the other side of Jones will be among the team’s leading tacklers.
The pass rush should shine with Denzil Ware back in his hybrid role, but the rest of the line has to be stronger against the run, especially in the interior. On the plus side, the tackles are deep, with a good rotation and nice size.
Playmaker Blake McClain is gone, but everyone else of note is back in the secondary, but corners Derrick Baity and Chris Westry have to come up with more big plays. They can tackle, though. Getting back S Darius West from a knee injury is a plus to go along with second-leading tackler Mike Edwards.
Biggest Key To The Kentucky Defense
The run defense has to be far better. With the excellent linebacking corps returning, there’s hope for more production against the quicker teams, while the front four needs to hold up stronger against the power attacks.
It all ties together – the UK D gave up far too many third down conversions, mainly because the opposing ground attacks were so good on first and second downs. On the season, UK allowed 200 rushing yards or more nine times, allowing over five yards per pop and 25 scores.
Kentucky Will Be Far Better If …
It starts winning the turnover battle. The Wildcats only won the margin four times – all four games were in November – but only went 2-2. Even so, giveaways were a problem in close losses to Georgia and Southern Miss – even when the defense was taking the ball away – while losing the ball two times or more in every game but two. On the flip side, the defense came up with two takeaways or more just six times.
Best Kentucky Offensive Player
RB Benjamin Snell, Soph. – Okay, okay, QB Stephen Johnson might turn out to be the star of the show – at least that’s the hope – but Snell could be that if he builds on his fantastic second half of last season. He cranked up three straight 100-yard games during a key stretch against Mississippi State, Missouri and Georgia, handling the ball 38 times for 192 yards and two scores against the Tigers.
The 5-11, 223-pounder can be more of a workhorse, and while he has a good burst and decent speed, his game is about bringing a bit of thump. He’ll be the tone-setter for the attack.
2. QB Stephen Johnson, Sr.
3. WR Garrett Johnson, Sr.
4. RB Sihiem King, Jr.
5. OT Kyle Meadows, Jr.
Best Kentucky Defensive Player
LB Jordan Jones, Jr. – The 6-2, 221-pounder turned into the team’s best all-around playmaking defender, starting out the season with 19 tackles against Southern Miss and finishing with a team-leading 109 stops with four tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss.
While he’s not all that big, he’s tremendously quick on the weakside getting all over the field, owning the backfield at times. The linebacking corps could be one of the team’s biggest strengths, and he’s the best of the lot.
2. DE Denzil Ware, Jr.
3. S Mike Edwards, Jr.
4. LB Josh Allen, Jr.
5. LB Courtney Love, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
DT Naquez Pringle, Sr. – Pringle and Adrian Middleton have to lock up the interior of a defense that was way too soft against the run. Depth isn’t going to be a problem on the inside, but one of the options has to step up and gum up the works. The 6-3, 320-pound Pringle came in from the JUCO ranks and started half the season, finishing with 39 tackles with a sack. On the nose, he has to own the front.
The Kentucky Season Will Be A Success If …
It’s the first ten-win season since 1977. That might be aiming a wee bit high, and it could take a bowl game to get to double-digits, but the team is too experienced and the schedule too favorable to shoot lower. The SEC East isn’t a crazy dream – especially considering the West games are against Ole Miss and Mississippi State and with Florida and Tennessee at home – but 10-3 would be fantastic.
Key Game To The Kentucky Season
Sept. 23 vs. Florida – Enough is freaking enough. 1986 was the last time Kentucky beat the Gators, and coming close is no longer okay or fun. After two straight close calls, the Wildcats didn’t show up in a 45-7 loss in Gainesville last season. This time around, it’s in Lexington in UK’s SEC home opener. With Eastern Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi State to follow, there’s a chance to go on a terrific run if the streak can finally be broken.
2016 Kentucky Fun Stats
– 4th Down Conversions: Kentucky 12-of-16 (75%) – Opponents 7-of-13 (54%)
– Penalties: Opponents 85 for 668 yards – Kentucky 66 for 605 yards
– Punt Return Average: Kentucky 8.2 yards – Opponents 5.4 yards