When Josh Allen and Mike Edwards announced their returns this week, there was an uncanny sense of “here we go” around the program. The football team was just a few crucial plays away from a historic season this past year, and with almost the entire roster back, both the fanbase and those within the program know the opportunity for a do-over is there.
The pieces are in place for a special season for the Kentucky Wildcats, and Mark Stoops has to capitalize on it.
The quarterback situation is interesting, as the starting job will either go to highly-touted newcomer Terry “Touchdown” Wilson, or Spring Game sensation Gunnar Hoak. Wilson is the fan-favorite, and the coaching staff said on National Signing Day that he had a major opportunity to start next year. Going into this past year, Darin Hinshaw said Hoak could have been a winning quarterback in the SEC. With an added year of experience and maturity, Hoak’s stable presence in the pocket could win out in the end. Regardless, there are two quarterbacks on the Kentucky roster with the ability to make an impact this season.
Dorian Baker, CJ Conrad, Benny Snell, and Lynn Bowden will be back for the offense, and the significance of that is obvious. Four incredible playmakers for the Cats, four guys that have the ability to put a ton of points on the board next season. The offense will be run by a new quarterback, and these four weapons alone will make life easier for him, regardless of who wins the job.
Baker was primed for a fantastic year before his season-ending injury, and he’s reportedly well ahead of schedule for next season. Conrad has the ability to be one of the best tight ends in college football, and Eddie Gran will almost certainly make him more of a focal point of the offense in his final year. Snell will continue to smash records at Kentucky and could find himself in the Heisman race with the national attention he received during the Music City Bowl. Bowden already showed signs of stardom in limited touches his freshman year, and that’s going to catapult forward next season.
Wide receivers Charles Walker, Garrett Johnson, Blake Bone, and Kayaune Ross are graduating, but the staff is extremely confident in freshmen Isaiah Epps, Josh Ali, and Clevan Thomas. They won’t be able to find the same level of success immediately, especially that of Walker and Johnson, but the potential is there. Tavin Richardson had a breakout game against Northwestern, and many think he could be a star on the outside for the Cats next season. Kentucky signee Marvin Alexander was praised on National Signing Day by the coaching staff as a guy that could play early, and surprise signee Bryce Oliver is a sleeper, as well. Baker, Richardson, and Bowden will be the core group, and the other pieces will likely fall in place beyond that. With Conrad’s usage rate increasing as well, the young guns won’t necessarily need to get an abundance of touches right away.
On the offensive line, four of five starters are returning, and seven key pieces of the rotation are back. USC transfer EJ Price will be eligible, and he’s expected to be a high-impact starter right away. Sebastien Dolcine and Naasir Watkins will be coming off a redshirt year, and early reports on them are impressive. The offensive line found a way to click without Jon Toth and Cole Mosier as the season progressed, and with little turnover, there’s no reason to believe we’ll see the unit take a step back.
Barring any surprises, 19 of 22 players from the Music City Bowl two-deep depth chart will be returning for the Kentucky defense. Kendall Randolph’s presence at Nickel will be missed, and Courtney Love’s impact both on and off the field is obvious, but both of those positions have capable replacements ready to see the field. Beyond those two departures, the Cats are absolutley stacked on the defensive side of the ball.
A pass rush of Josh Allen, Joshua Pachal, and Denzil Ware will be deadly, no questions asked. If Jamar “Boogie” Watson and TJ Carter continue to progress, and we see a few of the other redshirted prospects on the defensive line contribute solid reps, I’ll take my chances. The defensive line has been inconsistent in bringing the pressure, and they’ll have no option but to improve this offseason. Jordan Jones is an elite linebacker, and if he can clean up his on-field antics a bit, he could have a huge senior campaign. Quinton Bohanna has owned the nose guard position, taking the starting job from seniors Naquez Pringle and Matt Elam. Mike Edwards, Jordan Griffin, Chris Westry, Darius West, Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, and Davonte Robinson all return for the Wildcat secondary, a unit that turned heads against Northwestern in the Music City Bowl. If they can build off of that performance and live up to the potential we all know they possess, the defense has a real opportunity to be Stoops’ best.
Austin MacGinnis’ foot will certainly be missed, as he finished his Kentucky career as the best kicker in school history. Freshman Chance Poore was considered one of the top high school kickers in the nation, and like MacGinnis did out of high school, has the opportunity to start right away. If we see growing pains early, Miles Butler is a capable replacement. Dean Hood helped take the special teams unit to a new level this past year, and if anyone can figure out how to replace MacGinnis, it’s him.
All in all, this is one of the most talented rosters we’ve seen at Kentucky in quite some time. Mark Stoops has the senior leadership, talent, and depth to do something special. The pieces are there.
The Cats have had good seasons the past two years, but it’s time for a breakthrough.