After the most successful Kentucky football season in 41 years, Mark Stoops must replace 16 seniors and Benny Snell. From longsnapper to record-breaking National Defensive Player of the Year, all 17 players contributed in some form or fashion.
In spite of the losses, you can still find plenty of experience throughout the roster. The defensive line should be the best it’s been since Stoops arrived, however, in other position groups UK must lean on newcomers. How they perform under pressure will be the difference in a seven-win season or another history-making run.
As a three-year starter, Mike Edwards stalked opponents from multiple positions throughout the secondary. Whether he was lined up as a deep safety or a slot cornerback, Kentucky’s Badger covered sideline to sideline, easily masking the mistakes of his peers. Robinson will have to do that and more in his first year as a starter.
A four-star recruit from Lexington Henry Clay, the highly-coveted track star has the athleticism to be an SEC playmaker. Entering his fourth year with the program, Robinson is the most experienced defensive back on the team with three official starts. After primarily playing special teams as a redshirt freshman, last year he recorded 42 tackles, including a career-high nine against Georgia. Robinson scored Josh Allen’s strip sack on the final play in regulation at The Swamp.
In a small role, Robinson has been formidable. Instead of making a steady transition from role player to starter, he must immediately become the leader of the secondary. He’ll be tasked to make sure everybody’s lined up correctly before the snap. If the inexperienced cornerbacks get burnt, Robinson must be there to mitigate their mistakes. If he cannot be the secondary’s safety net, it will be a long season.
How is Mark Stoops handling the search for new cornerbacks? “I’ll lose a little more hair, get a little more gray,” he joked this spring.
All joking aside, replacing four-year starters will not be easy.
To solve the problem, Stoops hit the JUCO ranks. Luckily, he found one sure-fire fit. Brandin Echols was far and away the best cornerback at spring practice. A natural born ball-hawk, where others where inconsistent, he remained steady. The only problem with Echols is there’s only one of him.
Quandre Mosely needs to transform into UK’s second reliable corner option. Upon first sight, the JUCO transfer looks eerily similar to Chris Westry. Wearing No. 21, Mosely stands 6-foot 2- inches tall and uses his incredibly long arms as pass obstructing weapons. He has the tools, but lacks the experience. The No. 16 JUCO recruit in America was the second-ranked safety…and that’s the problem. This spring was his introduction to the cornerback position. If he does not pick the position up quickly, UK may have to lean on true freshman MJ Devonshire or a handful of talented, albeit inconsistent second-year players.
Brad White did not expect to replace Josh Allen with “The Next Josh Allen.” To fill the gap in production, White knew the sacks and tackles for loss would have to spread out amongst the defensive line. Still, it did not stop him from going in on his outside linebackers.
“We’re clearly not where we need to be and we’ve got a lot of steps to take. That’s the bottom line. To play in the 3-4 defense, you’ve got to have dominant outside edge guys,” was the nicest thing White said one spring morning where he spent almost 13 minutes dogging his group.
Two weeks later, Jordan Wright flipped the script in the spring game. He recorded four tackles, an interception and a pass break-up in addition to multiple pressures that would have likely resulted in sacks if it were a live-game scenario. Wright has the size (6’5″ 240 pounds) and athleticism to be what UK needs at Jack linebacker. So far, he’s lacked the consistency of a full-time starter. If that transition happens later, rather than sooner, Marquez Bembry and Jared Casey will eagerly fill the void.
Landon Young’s season-ending injury forced Kinnard to become just the third true freshman to not wear a redshirt under Stoops. The only other two offensive linemen to play as true freshman: Young and George Asafo-Adjei, the man he’s tasked to replace at right tackle this fall.
The high school All-American exceeded expectations as a true freshman. Kinnard played in nine games and started in two of the last three. He recorded zero penalties, zero missed assignments and 16 blocks at the point of attack that created three long touchdown runs.
The left side of Kentucky’s offensive line will be one of the best in the SEC. Opposing defenses will try to mitigate its strength by applying pressure on the more inexperienced right side. If Kinnard can parlay his freshman year into an excellent year two, Terry Wilson will have the time to thrive.
Class of 2017 Wide Receivers
As soon as Lynn Bowden stepped on campus, his impact was felt throughout the offense. Now UK’s offensive superstar needs a few wingmen. The most likely candidates are his class of 2017 compadres.
Even though it did not translate into production during the spring game, Josh Ali was the most consistent outside weapon throughout UK’s 15 spring practices. Ali can do a little bit of it all, but he will make his money running crisp intermediate routes on third and long.
Searching for explosiveness, the pressure is on Isaiah Epps. A natural-born burner, nobody in the receivers’ room can sprint past a defender quite like Epps. His problem in the past has been completing the play with a catch. He made one nice play for 60 yards in the spring game, but he must be able to do it on a consistent basis before the season starts.
Epps and Ali’s consistency will be questioned all year. Will their counterparts even show up? JaVonte Richardson was a four-star recruit who needed a season of junior college. He’s committed to UK, but we still have received no official word from the school on his status. Clevan Thomas turned heads as an early enrollee. We haven’t heard much from him since. Following a redshirt season, the Cats need every offensive weapon they can get.