Kentucky is projected to return 16 or 17 starters depending on which depth chart is used as a baseline. The Cats featured nine players that started all 13 games in 2017.
Let’s take a look the Wildcat Ironmen.
QB | Stephen Johnson
As could be heard on Kentucky Sports Radio, Johnson played through injuries during the 2017 season and could be considered as the Ultimate Ironman. Injuries incurred during his two-year career as the Wildcat starting quarterback will require three surgeries. Stephen Johnson was Eddie Gran’s offensive compass and will be difficult to replace. Gunnar Hoak, Terry Wilson, Danny Clark, or Walker Wood will try to feel the leadership void created upon Johnson’s departure. With key surrounding pieces returning, the 2018 QB competition will garner headlines and will be under constant scrutiny.
RB | Benny Snell
With an early departure to the NFL as a possibility, the SEC’s regular season rushing leader will return to Kroger Field for what could perhaps be his last collegiate season. The rising junior is practically rewriting the program’s record book and is becoming the standard for which all future UK running backs will be judged. An offseason development will involve developing and/or recruiting a running back to lessen the load for the star runner. I’ve learned to not doubt Benny Snell. 2018 could be another special season for the All-SEC performer. He should be on All-American and postseason honors watch lists.
G | Logan Stenberg
The former Freshman All-SEC Guard will be a junior in 2018. He served as Stephen Johnson’s primary care taker and is developing into an upper-level SEC offensive lineman. John Schlarman’s interior offensive line made late strides in 2017. Center Drake Jackson and fellow guard Bunchy Stallings will join Stenberg to comprise a veteran and stable OL nucleus.
WR | Garrett Johnson
“Juice” departs as the program’s 5th all-time leading pass catcher and 4th in receiving yards. His rise up statistical record books wasn’t properly discussed throughout the season. Johnson’s experience and uncanny ability to move the chains on 3rd down will be missed.
DE | TJ Carter
Losing Alvonte Bell in the preseason created an opening for the rising junior to become a full-time starter at defensive end. Carter finished 2017 with 18 Tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 3 QB sacks, 2 QB hurries, and 1 pass breakup. An area of defensive concern is its low number of tackles for loss (63). TJ Carter will be tasked to increase that statistical category and pass rush from his defensive end position.
DT | Adrian Middleton
Middleton will be a senior. He’s been a surprising stabilizer along the defensive front. The Bowling Green native racked up 25 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 QB sack in 2017. His total tackle number dropped from 35 in 2016. See above TJ Carter statement. Middleton will be asked to increase the team’s tackle for loss total next season as well as enhancing its organic front three’s pass rush.
OLB | Josh Allen
The All-SEC and Midseason All-American declined an early NFL entry to stay in Lexington for a senior campaign. Consistent production next fall could catapult Allen into a high-round pick. He racked up 65 tackles, 7 QB sacks, 9.5 TFL’s, 1 INT, forced 2 fumbles, 3 pass breakups, and 4 QB hurries in 17. Increased interior defensive line pressure will prevent opposing offenses from sliding protection to counter Josh Allen’s edge rush. However, I’d expect opponents to continue game planning in order to slow him in certain passing downs.
MLB | Courtney Love
What a man. What a leader. Much like Stephen Johnson; Courtney Love will be difficult to replace both on and off the field. 2017 numbers: 92 tackles, 3.5 TFL’s, 1 QB sack, 2 recovered fumbles, and 2 pass breakups. Love maintained a constant presence in the middle of the Wildcat defense for two seasons. His total tackle number raised from 76 in 2016 to 92 in 2017. He finished his senior season as the SEC’s 11th leading tackler.
S | Mike Edwards
Surprisingly, Mike Edwards joined Josh Allen in deciding to return to Kentucky and not enter the NFL Draft. The All SEC selection is one of the league’s most productive defenders: 97 tackles, 4 INT’s, 1 QB sack, 4 TFL’s (SEC-2nd), 1 QB hurry, and 6 pass breakups. The SEC’s 9th leading tackler’s diverse skill set will be in demand from the professional league. But, a return for a senior season will provide experience and an elite talent for the Wildcat secondary.
I can’t tell you how difficult it is to start every game during a season. Injuries and at times performance can limit the number of starts for most football players. The “Grind” you hear and read about is legitimate. However, these nine maintained that status throughout the regular season as well as in the Music City Bowl. Courtney Love and Stephen Johnson will be missed and difficult to replace. Mark Stoops will have a veteran laden squad in 2018. Next season should also present an extraordinarily high number of NFL Draft picks.