Rewind to a year ago. Who could have guessed that an unheralded JUCO quarterback with zero Power 5 offers other than Kentucky would lead the Cats to a Governor’s Cup road victory, a 7-5 regular season record, and a New Year’s Bowl?
How about this guy with one non-Kentucky Power 5 scholarship offer? Benny Snell was the ranked as the nation’s 73rd best high school running back. The rookie shocked and awed the Southeastern Conference, named 1st Team Freshman All-American while rushing for more than 1,000 yards and breaking UK rushing records.
5-star, hometown hero Landon Young committed to Mark Stoops early on in the recruiting process and never wavered. Young performed like a high school All-American in his freshman college season by earning mid-season starts and becoming a key component of UK’s 9-deep offensive line rotation. The rising sophomore’s expectation ceiling remains extremely high.
Will tomorrow produce another Benny Snell, Landon Young, or Stephen Johnson? How will this class stack up against Stoops’ prior hauls? Let’s take a look:
Immediate Need: Receivers and Playmakers
Lamar Thomas should be all smiles while eating his morning Skittles on Wednesday. Kentucky’s pass catchers will significantly improve following a few strokes of the pen.
Inside receivers Clevan Thomas, Joshua Ali and possibly Lynn Bowden are bigger, more powerful, as fast, and more fluid than any collection of slot targets that Stoops has signed in five classes. This news should be pleasing for the BBN as UK lost Ryan Timmons to graduation and Jeff Badet to an unknown future destination.
If called upon, the trio is physically ready to play now. This group projects increased YAC (yards after catch) which could bring back the short to intermediate screen game that was sorely missing from Eddie Gran’s play sheet in 2016.
Outside WR’s JaVonte Richardson and Isaiah Epps equal their inside counterparts in athleticism and readiness to contribute. Epps is an accomplished and polished route runner with tremendous potential. Richardson is an Alpha Dog competitor that wins 50/50 plays and increases the receiving corps toughness by three fold. One factor that separates the 2017 receivers is that blocking seems to be important.
The Wildcats desperately needed playmaking receivers in this class. It appears as if that task will be successfully accomplished.
Required Need: Running Back
Bryant Koback is a fast, multiple-cut running back that can also catch the football out of the backfield. In other words, Eddie Gran landed the perfect accompaniment to Benny Snell, AJ Rose, and Sihiem King.
Program Needs: Offensive Line and Quarterback
These two positions rely more on player development than pass catchers and running backs. Early enrollee QB’s Danny Clark and Walker Wood will both benefit from an additional spring practice.
John Schlarman has had himself quite the offseason as the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic rated his unit as tops in the conference. Cubelic’s list acted as validation for persistent up-front progress.
Kentucky’s offensive line returns all but one out of its top nine 2016 contributors. Sebastien Dolcine, Austin Dotson, and Naasir Watkins will have time to add required strength and technical proficiency as a redshirt season seems imminent. Dolcine is my offensive sleeper and has recently sustained a significant bump in the star rating system.
Rest assured, you’ll hear much more about these three tomorrow as I’m extremely high on the 2017 big guys.
Immediate Need: Defensive Line/Defensive End-Outside Linebackers
Defensive line remained an immediate and imperative need, much like receiver. DL Coach Jimmy Brumbaugh only loses defensive end Courtney Miggins. But, a late-season lack of Nose Tackle depth spelled doom in the Taxslayer Bowl as the Georgia Tech B-Back ran through and over the Wildcat defense for 169 yards.
Assigning exact positions for defensive line signees can be difficult as projection must include anticipated weight and strength gain. At 6’4, 320-pounds Quinton Bohanna fits the mold of a traditional Nose Tackle. JUCO DL Phil Hoskins hopes to factor early and is experienced in all three defensive line positions.
Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald is a raw, yet physically gifted defensive end with room for positive development. The late commitment/signee fits the undervalued/underrated role similar to Class of 2015’s Josh Allen.
Chris Whittaker has the preferred projected size, skill set, and demeanor to play inside and is not opposed to the dirty work required in eating up blockers. Whittaker is nasty; in a football good kinda way and can be seen in film chasing ball carriers 30 yards downfield and playing until the whistle blows. Tough guy; 260 right now, will be 290 in the blink of an eye.
Elite pass rushing, DE/LB combination was another vital need. Jordan Wright could potentially become a standup, pass rush OLB that wreaks havoc for opposing quarterbacks. Joshua Paschal is in an exclusive situation of possibly being the most dynamic and explosive edge rusher that Mark Stoops has signed. He also factors as a Bud Dupree type player. Both Paschal and Wright could also grow into a permanent role at defensive end with additional weight/strength training. Regardless of position, Wright and Paschal could become a lethal duo much like Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.
Required Need: Safety/Nickel
Gone are three highly influential and active defenders: Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson, and JD Harmon. Tyrell Ajian and Lonnie Johnson could provide immediate depth and a potential spark for Steven Clinkscale. Johnson is actually a cornerback but can foreseeably play all three defensive backfield positions.
Program Needs: Linebacker, Cornerback
UK’s 2017 cornerback class is flat out loaded. Actually, we could list Yusuf Corker, Cedrick Dort, and Michael Nesbitt in the above “Required Need” column as all are diverse talents with the capability to play CB, Safety and Nickel.
This group may not be receiving the same accolades as the defensive line and edge players, but rest assured; this is a quality collection of talent that could immediately factor if necessary.
Jamin Davis is diverse and skilled linebacker that can play in the middle or on the outside. Weighing approximately 210-pounds, Davis is a few biscuits away from being a Thumper at 240. By all accounts the kid is a leader.
Alex King is an early commit that Vince Marrow had to fight off Notre Dame and the likes for the services of an outside linebacker that has been described as the best “Jack” pass rusher in the Midwest. With adequate depth at both positions, both will have the luxury to develop and add weight/strength and technical progression. King and Davis join Whittaker as my defensive sleepers of the class.
What does all this mean?
Simple, Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow filled immediate and pressing needs at receiver and defensive line, while potentially collecting his best recruiting class. Those signing their pledge to the Cats tomorrow are bigger, stronger, faster, and in several cases meaner, than their predecessors.
This class is full of fiery, multi-sport athletes that appear to love the game of football and are not scared of competition. If you think about it; this class takes on the personality of its new head coach Mark Stoops and defensive leader Jordan Jones.