Decided I would include a “selfie” on my last working day of the football season.
Just wait until next year! This tired refrain has been repeated by the Kentucky football faithful upon the merciful completion of nearly every season since Bear Bryant deserted the Wildcat sideline in 1954. Many times, this sentiment is based in nothing more that blind hope and a dash of Old Crow. But now, despite the depressing second half of Kentucky’s 2014 season, optimism for the immediate future of Wildcat Football is actually very bright from an objective perspective. This hope derives from the fact that Kentucky will return the vast majority of its productive players in 2015. Moreover, as the former staff’s players move on, the overall talent that Mark Stoops has infused into the Kentucky program should reveal itself more evidently on the field. In short, 2015 is a season that not only the optimists should be anticipating with enthusiasm.
The 2015 Cats will return their top rusher, passer, receiver, tackler and interceptor (I know that’s not a word, mom) from the 2014 season. But the amount of returning production is actually much greater than even that statement indicates. The Cats will return their top eight rushers. This includes Boom Williams, who has emerged as the biggest potential difference-making skill position player on the roster. (75 carries for 503 yards and five touchdowns, while sporting a robust 6.5 yards per carry.) Not bad for a true freshman in Daisy Duke football pants.
The Cats will also return 6 of their top 8 pass catchers from 2014. Four of these players, Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and TV Williams, were true freshmen who should make dramatic leaps as sophomores. In addition, the Cats will get back Jeff Badet and Alexander Montgomery, both of whom redshirted due to injury last season after impressive true freshmen campaigns in 2013. Finally, Kentucky will add Thaddeus Snodgrass, the former four star recruit about whom coaches raved repeatedly during his redshirt year. In short, the receiver position will finally boast the depth needed to truly run the offense that the Cats have sought to run since Stoops’ arrival. (Part of why I think Kentucky will hire an Air Raid Coordinator.)
The improvement of the other skill players only matters if the quarterback position is effective. And with Patrick Towles having now experienced his first season as a starter, history tells us that improvement is imminent. Despite suffering a sub-par game against the Cards, Towles had a solid first season as a starter. He completed just over 57% of his passes for 2718 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for another 559 net yards and 6 touchdowns. History indicates that he is primed for a spike in these figures next season. Andre’ Woodson, for example, completed the identical percentage of his passes (57%) as Patrick completed in his first year as a starter, then jumped to 63% in year two. He also jumped from 6 to 31 touchdown passes. If Patrick can fend off a camp challenge from Drew Barker, I expect his productivity to jump in a similar fashion.
If Towles is to make the jump, he obviously needs help from the offensive line. The Kentucky offensive line was functional at best in 2014. It was not the turnstile to defensive linemen it has been in some of the truly dark days of Kentucky football, but it was far from dominant. Kentucky rarely got much of a push in the run game and struggled keeping edge rushers from pressuring Towles in obvious passing situations. More than any other factor, I think this impacted Neal Brown’s game planning. Obviously, experience is important. Kentucky returns 4 of 5 starters along the O-line and 7 of 9 contributors. But of equal importance, the Cats were able to redshirt four highly regarded linemen in 2014. Kentucky needs these young players, all of whom have legitimate SEC size, to push the returning players, and in some cases, replace them, if the Cats are to improve at the line of scrimmage next season.
Defensively, the Cats lose their best player in Bud Dupree as well as fellow defensive end Za’Darius Smith. There is no question that the loss of these two players will be difficult to overcome. However, at every other spot on the Kentucky defensive roster, Kentucky will have more depth and talent than they had in 2014. Outside of the offensive linemen, almost all of the redshirted players in 2014 were defensive players. Many of these players play positions of severe need for the Cats. Most notable, linebacker and safety. With eight returning starters, and a large amount of reinforcements from redshirted talent, Kentucky’s overall depth and talent on defense will be upgraded significantly next season.
Overall, based on the recruiting prowess of Mark Stoops, each year that a class recruited by the former staff cycles through the program, the overall talent level increases. The 2010 class that just graduated, for example, was regarded by Rivals as the 62nd best class in America. The rising senior class, the final Joker Phillips group, was also ranked 62nd. By comparison, Mark Stoops first two classes ranked 29th and 17th. Depending on a few remaining targets, the 2015 class will likely finish around 25th. So by the time next season rolls around, approximately 75% will be comprised of Mark Stoops’ recruits. Thus, next season will be the first time that the majority of the roster will truly be shaped in the image that Mark Stoops has for his program. That, combined with the returning talent, should make 2015 a special season.