By my estimation, Saturday’s Fan Day attendance was the largest in recent history. The BBN packed into the Nutter Fieldhouse to get a glimpse of the 2015 Wildcats. The indoor facility’s atmosphere was filled with excitement and cautious optimism. Autograph session ended and the party moved to the Tim Couch Field for an open practice. Fans lined the practice fields for a music fueled, two hour exhibition. My thoughts about the festivities will be divided into three distinct categories: expectation, perception, and reality.
Current UK fan expectation ranges from as high as an SEC Championship run to as low as a 3-9 outcome. Historically, realistic expectation has not been one of my strongest suits. That changed three years ago when I entered the sports media world. Now that I’m writing for KSR, I’ve become even more cognizant of not projecting false hope by doing my best to provide objective analysis. At times, that’s been difficult. I do not apologize for that. I’m not objective by nature. I think I may actually have blue blood running through my veins. But that doesn’t cloud my responsibility entrusted to me by Matt and Kentucky Sports Radio. I intend to say what I mean, and mean what I say.
My expectation for Saturday’s practice was minimal in regards to execution but high on personnel and athletic improvement. I was not disappointed. The fruits of three years of successful recruiting have resulted in upgraded collective talent. However, and even with obvious personnel improvement, 2015 expectation should be filtered. I can say that the freshmen defensive backs impressed. Their size, fluidity, and competitiveness towered over their ancestors. Development of veteran players was also noticeable. Melvin Lewis, Josh Forrest, Zach West, and Farrington Huguennin are examples of player development through hard work and perserverence.
Kentucky is clearly an improved football team. That was obvious throughout Saturday’s practice. However, that session was in helmets and shorts. You cannot truly judge a team until the pads start popping. Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson, Ryan Timmons, and Dorian Baker are four legitimate, SEC receivers. But when applying proper perspective, most all SEC teams have four quality pass catchers. Boom Williams is as good as any running back in the league. Georgia has four high school All Americans on their depth chart behind Nick Chubb. Perspective. Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan are comparable to their inside line-backing piers across the south. But other programs play eight to ten elite linebackers on any given Saturday. Jason Hatcher’s untimely and unfathomable suspension along with Kobe Walker’s inactiveness due to injury places DJ Eliot in an early camp LB conundrum.
2015’s Wildcats are much better than the 2014 version that we last saw getting thumped by Georgia. But just how that measures up against its demanding schedule is yet to be seen. Undeniably UK has the appearance and talent of an SEC football team. The bump in talent and eight home games will keep games close enough to win. How the Cats can get over the proverbial hump is by leaning on intangible excellence. Jason Hatcher’s suspension is the very last thing this team needed going into fall camp. Other teams have suspended players for their opening games. Those other teams are also much deeper than UK.
Reality is that Kentucky is talented enough to win eight to nine games. Reality also states that UK’s depth is so thin at certain positions, that if injury or suspension becomes habitual, the Cats win total wouldn’t exceed three or four. That miniscule margin of error is where Kentucky will live in throughout the entire 2015 season.
The cold hard truth is UK will be as good as its quarterback plays. Patrick Towles had a solid practice, but so did Drew Barker. Naming a starter and beginning to prepare for Louisiana Lafayette are both critical and indefinite outcomes. Mark Stoops has his own time table for naming his offensive leader.
The Wildcats finally have skill players that will influence opposing defensive coordinators sleep habits. Running backs are skilled and diverse. Boom is the starter, but Dawson can change the game’s dynamic by adding Mikel Horton or JoJo Kemp. Tight ends are no longer an ineffective passing game decoy. Darryl Long and CJ Conrad can get open and score. Receivers are athletic and strong enough to go toe to toe with the SEC’s best on a weekly basis. The big guys up front finally have the appearance of what an offensive line is supposed to look like. Talent resides Lexington. Margin for error and depth do not. Not yet.
Defensively, I’m still not convinced that a permanent move to the 3-4 is feasible. For instance, at strong-side defensive end, only Farrington Huguennin has taken a game snap. Players behind him are listed as DE/OLB. Factor that and the lack of linebacker depth, I don’t see Kentucky having enough talented personnel to pull that off. Again, and unfortunately, the Hatcher situation will heavily influence which defensive scheme that we’ll see come 5 September. Secondary wise; AJ Stamps, Marcus Walker, Marcus McWilson, Darius West, and Mike Edwards are all capable and potentially elite safeties. In recent past, having a safety one on one against a tight end or receiver was a “close your eyes and hope” moment. No longer. Cornerback is the position of concern. But, as was evident today, the younger players are by far the best athletes of that group.
In summary, you can’t judge a team by a shorts and helmet practice. I could bore you with meaningless one on one results and who warmed up the fanciest. What you can judge in that environment is athletic improvement and obvious personnel deficits. Going into 2015, the improvements heavily outweigh the deficits. As it appears today, UK will go as far as its quarterback will take them and it cannot afford more irresponsible and selfish suspensions by critical personnel.