Mark Stoops and his Wildcats will be taking the playing surface at Kroger Field tomorrow evening fresh off a 10-win season with a Citrus Bowl win. That trophy along with the Governor’s Cup will be on display outside the stadium tomorrow, but it’s now time to move forward.
UK returns a ton of talent and experience on both sides of the line of scrimmage, a starter at QB, a potential All-American at receiver, and a ton of high ceiling players at linebacker. The Wildcats have some intriguing pieces and with eight home games in 2019, the potential will be there to make a big splash this fall.
Entering Friday evening at Kroger Field, here are seven player personnel issues to be aware of entering this football season.
Joshua Paschal is now a full-time defensive end
The former top-300 recruit out of the DMV area flashed playing outside linebacker during his true freshman season in 2017 before melanoma forced him out of the lineup last fall. Fresh off a redshirt season, Paschal has moved to his more natural spot on the line of scrimmage and he will be a key cog in UK’s talented defensive front.
The 284-pound linemen brings great sudden quickness to the lineup and some other raw traits that will only get better with experience gained. Paschal showed a lot of ability as an interior pass rusher in obvious pass situations for UK in 2017 and everyone we’ll get to see more of that this fall.
Searching for a No. 2 wide receiver
There’s no question that Lynn Bowden, Jr. is UK’s most important player on offense and he will be very important to every offensive game plan Eddie Gran puts together this season. Bowden has an opportunity to be an All-SEC player and one of the best inside receivers in the country. But even Batman needed a sidekick.
All spring we’ve heard Mark Stoops address how his program must develop the passing game and to do that they need a second guy to emerge on the outside. Entering the end of spring ball, it appeared junior Josh Ali was the favorite to fill that void.
The South Florida native and former three-star prospect had a 66.7 percent catch rate last year with an 11.5 yards per grab average. That’s solid efficiency but UK needs more explosive plays on the outside. Someone like B.J. Alexander, Allen Dailey, Jr., Bryce Oliver, or fan favorite Ahmad Wagner could be a player that develops into a big role come Labor Day weekend.
A retooling secondary
Davonte Robinson is back for his redshirt junior season and the Henry Clay native will be one of the defense’s best players this season. The problem is UK is fishing for answers around him.
At free safety, it looks like redshirt sophomores Tyrell Ajian and Yusuf Corker are in a heated battle while senior Jordan Griffin floats around when Robinson moves to nickel. At field corner, played by Derrick Baity the last three years, it appears junior college transfer Brandin Echols is a lock to start. Opposite of him at boundary corner is a total guess. Redshirt sophomore Cedrick Dort, Jr. brings a minute amount of experience while redshirt freshman Jamari Brown has been mentioned by the coaches this spring. Junior college transfer Quandre Mosely is coming along slowly after playing primarily safety during his football career.
Mark Stoops has his hands full finding answers in the secondary and tomorrow will be the first time most in the Big Blue Nation will get to see these new cast of characters playing live reps.
New Defensive Coordinator
Matt House is now in Kansas City helping the Chiefs prep for the NFL Draft and a Super Bowl run this coming football season. Back in Lexington, Brad White has been recently promoted and is about to wrap up his first spring in the coordinator’s chair.
The former Colts assistant coach made a huge splash his first season in Lexington by helping Josh Allen develop into the best defensive player in the country. That and the development of the rest of his players allowed him to become the third defensive coordinator for Mark Stoops in Lexington. The scheme should remain mostly the same, but White brings a demanding coaching style to the defense.
In the past, the SEC Network has taken those of you watching from home on the field and onto the sidelines while the coaches do their thing. Keep your fingers crossed that they do this again and allow us to see just how White operates. The new coordinator is making stuff happen on the recruiting trail.
New look backfield
Benny Snell is off to the National Football League and now it’s rebuild time for Eddie Gran’s positional unit. Since 2016, Kentucky has consistently had one of the best rushing attacks in the SEC and for the first time since 2016 it feels like it will need to be a committee approach this fall.
A.J. Rose headlines the group and the redshirt junior from Cleveland has shown some home run ability. At 210 pounds, the former high school quarterback has the ability to pair power with some of that speed in addition to bringing a pass catching ability to the offense. But the big story tomorrow will be about the two redshirt freshmen.
Both Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke redshirted last season, but there’s plenty to be excited about. Rodriguez is the best short yardage back of the group and he’s gotten many comparisons to Snell in his ability to move the pile and churn out tough yards. Meanwhile, Smoke brings big play ability to the position and some intriguing positional size (5-foot-9, 225 pounds). The Alabama native has a low center of gravity and should be hard to tackle. Add that with some burst and the future is bright for the young tailback.
Even with Snell gone, Kentucky is built to be a run first offense. The Wildcats want to eat clock and churn out first downs on the ground. They’ll need all three backs to contribute to help replace a program legend.
A familiar face at left tackle
Last fall camp, Kentucky was hit with some brutal injury news. Former five-star recruit and Lexington native Landon Young tore his ACL and was out for the season. After a year of rehab and heavy strength training, the redshirt junior could be primed for a great season.
The prototypical left tackle is up to 324 pounds and looks the part. The Lafayette alum has some legit NFL tools and has the potential to develop into an All-SEC tackle if that knee holds up. With the departure of E.J. Price following the season, it was essential to get Young back in the fold.
I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a UK offensive line this talented. Young, Darian Kinnard, and Drake Jackson were all blue-chip recruits while redshirt senior Logan Stenberg has developed into one of the best guards in the SEC. Depth needs to be addressed, but this starting group will have a chance to be the best offensive line in the conference.
After year filled with 10 wins and some growing pains, Terry Wilson is now an upperclassmen and gives Kentucky some much needed experience at quarterback. UK needs the signal caller from Oklahoma City to make a big step forward in 2019.
In 13 starts last season, Wilson completed 67.2 percent of his passes but more often than not they did not go anywhere. You add that in with 28 sacks allowed and that’s not a good recipe for success. This fall, Kentucky must allow Wilson take shots down the field and see that completion percentage fall a few points in favor of more yards per attempt. Add that in with better pocket mechanics and it could be a great year for Wilson.
There’s not going to be much to take from the spring game when evaluating Wilson, but it will be nice to see how accurate he is when UK lets it rip down the field. Early reports out of practice are that the quarterback has bulked up and that should help him stay fresh during the season. Kentucky is still going to need him to bring something to the table in the rushing department.