Ah, the dog days of preseason football camp. The time of the year where every ounce of information is dissected to the nth degree. Some fans are tooting the Cats’ horn, while pessimists point to the logos on UK’s schedule. Fans analyze every move made by each quarterback, even the ones we can’t see, while national analysts create more bulletin board material.
Believe what you want about the 2018 Kentucky football team, but I’ve been sold since August 4.
On the first Saturday of August the doors to the Kentucky football practice fields were opened to the general public. It took about ten minutes to realize it’s the best Kentucky football team I’ve seen in six years of covering the program.
You don’t have to have a trained eye to tell the difference. The Cats are just bigger and stronger at every single position. You can look at the heights and weights listed on the depth chart and see taller, heavier players, but numbers are not captivating. To see Marquan McCall, a true freshman nose guard, deliver a thunderous punch to the chest of an All-SEC offensive lineman, it elicits an unfamiliar wide-eyed response.
Mark Stoops can tell you the Cats have more depth at the defensive line, but those are just words. You must see the difference. Let me try.
Remember C.J. Johnson? In 2015 he was Kentucky’s most disruptive defensive lineman, accounting for 67 tackles, 8 for loss and a pair of sacks. His athleticism made him effective because he didn’t have size on his side. As you’ll see below, he held his own in the trenches, earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors, but he was undersized for an interior lineman at 6’2″ 290ish pounds.
If Johnson was on the 2018 roster, he would be the last guy to catch your eye. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald was a gangly basketball player when he signed with Kentucky. The redshirt freshman might not see a snap this fall, but he’s a 6’6″ 280-pound behemoth built with solid muscle. Oh yeah, and he can move too.
At almost every single position, the third guy on the depth chart is bigger, faster and stronger than their predecessors who were stars just a couple years ago.
Guys like Jordan Griffin, Davonte Robinson and Yusuf Corker would have started for Stoops’ 2015 team, one that was a heartbreaking loss away from a bowl appearance. This year, it will be hard for any of them to find minutes behind a talented group of seniors. You thought Dorian Baker was big? Ahmad Wagner makes Baker look tiny. Kash Daniel is an absolute monster, but all of the underclassmen behind him are lengthy 6’4″ developing talents that move like wide receivers. On the offensive line, Big George is the strongest man on the team, but the senior right tackle is no longer the biggest man on the offensive line.
Size doesn’t equate success. It’s a lesson the Big Blue Nation learned from Matt Elam. The big guys must be tacticians that can explode into the right place at the right time to make plays when their number is called. That’s football.
Like every football team in America, the 2018 Wildcats are far from a finished product. Fans who got to see the team on August 4 saw an impressively balanced team that has limitless potential. No matter who is on the schedule or where the game is played, Kentucky has the athletes to match (or dominate) the competition.
Unfortunately, UK will keep the team behind closed doors until September 1. When you finally see the Wildcats take the field, dreams of a season unlike anything you’ve seen before won’t seem so far-fetched.