The Kentucky football team brought the confidence of an SEC title contender to the 2018 edition of SEC Media Days, even though few believe they can accomplish the feat.
“My personal expectations this year is to get this team to play in the SEC Championship Game,” C.J. Conrad said.
“We feel really confident as a team. Josh is one of the best defensive ends in this conference. Benny is one of the best running backs in this country. We’re a talented team and we feel really confident in the work we put in this summer.”
Kentucky returns a ton of talent on both sides of the football, yet when predictions for the league’s final standings are released later this week, the Cats will likely be in the bottom half of the SEC. Some will use it as motivation, but it doesn’t bother Josh Allen.
“We’re used to this. We’re a team full of underdogs. We have an underdog story and we’re going to carry that to the end. We can be ranked whatever number they have us now; that doesn’t mean anything to us. We’re going to perform on and off the field. We’re going to play like we’re the No. 1 team in the country until we get it.”
Kentucky has steadily climbed the SEC ladder in each year under Mark Stoops. In 2017 the Cats had their second consecutive seven-win season, but came up short against Florida, Ole Miss and Northwestern. They’ve been close, but that’s not good enough.
“We expect more,” Mark Stoops said at the Main Room podium. “We’ve been close. We’ve done some good things. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, that we look forward to making a big jump this year. We return some players with experience. We returned some talent. We returned some players that decided to forego the NFL and come back to do more, to play with a chip on their shoulder, to win some football games.
“We’re tired of being close.”
Stoops brought a defensive mindset to Kentucky, but his defense did not reflect that sentiment in 2017. The Kentucky defense finished in the bottom half of the SEC in every major statistical category.
“It’s definitely an area where we need to improve,” Stoops said. “We played good at times, but that’s not good enough. We need to be consistent across the board.”
The good news: Kentucky ranks first in the SEC in returning defensive production.
“We have some players, not only with some experience, but we actually have some players with some talent. As I said, there’s several guys that will play in the NFL and decided to come back, and we need their leadership. We need to be better.”
To take steps forward, it all starts up front.
“Great defenses in this league are dominated by defensive lineman, and we are getting much better. I feel much more solid about where we’ve been. We had a freshman last year play at nose guard that I have high hopes for that I’m excited about in Quinton Bohanna. Josh Paschal moved from outside linebacker to inside. He’s a guy you give him a biscuit, and he can get to 300 pounds, but he’s athletic enough to play on the edge. I really love the way he’s playing the game. He’s very athletic, very twitchy. He makes plays.”
Along with Bohanna and Paschal, Stoops singled out Adrian Middleton, T.J. Carter and JUCO transfer Phil Hoskins as players who will solidify Kentucky’s front seven.
“The Epitome of Development”
Stoops rarely, if ever, gets praised for developing talent. Today he stood beside a guy who has done it by the book, Josh Allen.
“He’s the epitome of development,” said Stoops. “He comes into our program as a two-star recruit, 200 pounds. Now he’s a solid 260 and projected as first-round draft pick. We’re excited about Josh.”
Allen isn’t the only one experiencing gains. Conrad revealed he’s the largest he’s ever been in his life. The tight end will play at 255 pounds this fall.
In years past, there might be one or two guys who are given the title of leader by the peers and coaches. Now there’s a couple of guys in each position group.
Conrad believes cornerback Derrick Baity has matured immensely over the last year. Alongside him on the offensive line, George Asafo-Adjei is playing like a four-year starter. Allen believes Josh Paschal is in the process of transforming into one of the nation’s best defensive lineman. Most importantly, when the defense lost its captain, Kash Daniel has seamlessly filled Courtney Love’s shoes.
“He’s becoming the vocal leader of the defense, which he should be, and he’s taking it to heart.” Allen said. “Kash is unbelievable. He’s learned so much and he’s gained so much confidence out there. He’s more comfortable. He can move better. He’s doing a lot of stuff that we need.”
Swaggy Benny Snell is “Ecstatic”
Kentucky’s All-SEC running back was a man on a mission. Before he left Atlanta, he wanted everyone to know that Benny Snell is the best running back in the SEC. He said it once, then doubled down and continued to reiterate that statement throughout the day.
Snell couldn’t contain himself after his season ended prematurely in a Music City Bowl ejection. He isn’t mad about it. In fact, he’s done an excellent job of turning that negative into a positive.
“It was a blessing in disguise. Me being kicked out, more people know who I am now because of that,” he said.
Snell is also using the ejection as motivation for the upcoming season.