This standard Media Days post was written by only utilizing materials provided to the media in Hoover and based off conversations with media members.
Kentucky fought its way to a 7-5 regular season record by winning close conference games at home and upsetting Louisville on the road in the season finale. It lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl. 2016 has to be considered a success. But, UK must go on the road to play much improved conference teams that it closely defeated at home a year ago. The Cats catch a scheduling break as it hosts Ole Miss who replaces Alabama on the road. Furthermore, UK has a September 2nd date with Southern Miss who shocked the home crowd in last season’s opener.
Kentucky started the season 0-2 after the aforementioned upset vs. USM and getting run-ruled by Florida in the Swamp. Game three vs. New Mexico State saw three new critical developments that shaped the course of the season. One, starting quarterback Drew Barker left the game with an injured back. JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson led the Wildcats to seven wins. Two, true freshman Benny Snell played his first significant action and continued to roll up rushing yards and touchdowns. Snell broke the thousand-yard mark as well as several school records. And three, Mark Stoops assumed defensive play calling duties. This change forced a dramatic decrease in allowed yardage and points.
Head Coach: Mark Stoops, 19-30 at Kentucky
2016 Results: 7-6, lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the Taxslayer Bowl
Opener: At Southern Miss
Eddie Gran created an offense that took on his head coach’s personality. A two-deep offensive line physically dominated upfront which led to a bruising running game that produced two, thousand yard rushers. QB Stephen Johnson’s (2037-yards, 13 TD’s) emergence served as a life raft for a struggling team. Johnson has a quiet off-the-field demeanor but is highly confident and competitive. His likelihood for turnovers must decrease as his completion percentage must increase. 1st Team Freshman All American RB Benny Snell (1091-yards, 13 TD’s) is back for round two in the Southeastern Conference and will run behind the league’s top offensive line from a year ago. It returns four starters including center Bunchy Stallings, guard Nick Haynes, tackle Cole Mosier, and tackle Kyle Meadows. Leading receiver Garrett Johnson (39 catches, 5 TD’s) is now a senior and poised to resume his role as UK’s deep threat. He’s joined by fellow senior Dorian Baker (14 receptions, 2 TD’s) who’s due for a breakout year after battling injuries as a junior. TE CJ Conrad (19 catches, 4 TD’s) will fight for all conference honors.
Defenses will likely stack the box vs. the Cats. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran must find receivers to run the top of defenses and a short to intermediate passing game in order to loosen run lanes for Benny Snell.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Returning Starters: 8
-Passing: Stephen Johnson-145/265, 13 TD’s, 6 INT’s 2037-yards
-Rushing: Benny Snell-1091-yards, 13 TD’s
-Receiving: Garrett Johnson-39 receptions, 585-yards, 5 TD’s
The biggest question mark for the team lies directly on the shoulders of the defensive line. DT Adrian Middleton impressed as a sophomore as well as in spring practice. NT Naquez Pringle is consistent but needs to become more forceful and help in the form of depth at that position. Defensive end is an unknown following the Courtney Miggins’ graduation and Alvonte Bell’s recent dismissal. True sophomore TJ Carter is penciled in as a starter and played extremely well against Georgia Tech. Kengera Daniel and Calvin Taylor Jr. will also compete at the spot.
New defensive coordinator Matt House’s strength is in his linebackers and secondary. LB’s Jordan Jones (109 tackles), Courtney Love (76 tackles), Josh Allen (62 tackles), and Denzil Ware (70 tackles) construct one of the better groups in the conference. The secondary is led by All SEC safety Mike Edwards (100 tackles) who is joined by a pair of three-year starting cornerbacks Chris Westry (2 INT’s) and Derrick Baity (3 INT’s). There’s lots of talk about Baity in Hoover.
Opposing offenses are likely to line up and run the football directly at that defensive line. It’s up to the Cats to stop the run first in order to best utilize a skilled secondary to force turnovers. Furthermore, it’s paramount to register a pass rush from the defensive tackle, nose tackle, and defensive end positions to prevent strain on the linebackers with constant blitzing scenarios.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Returning Starters: 9
-Tackles: Jordan Jones-109 tackles
-Interceptions: Mike Edwards-3, Derrick Baity-3
-QB Sacks: Josh Allen-7
-Tackles for Loss: Denzil Ware-12
Mark Stoops has done a tremendous job upgrading talent and facilities in Lexington. Hoover voters are split on Kentucky and South Carolina as its East riser. The SEC Network’s Booger McFarland proclaimed the Wildcats as his dark horse team. Based off conversations in Hoover, I’ll take the Cats but I want to see how it handles Southern Miss RB Ito Smith and the Southern Miss running game before my stance is confirmed. 2016 appeared to be a turning point for Stoops.