March has arrived. In Kentucky that signals the beginning of Madness. In addition to Selection Sunday and the euphoria that surrounds bracketology, the BBN will get a sneak peek at its football team. The Cats will conduct 15 spring practices with its first session on Sunday. Kentucky must answer two glaring questions prior to April 14th if it intends to continue an upward trek.
Who’s the Center?
OL coach John Schlarman constructed a two-deep mauling crew in 2016 that was led by four-year starting center Jon Toth. There are replacement options, let’s take a look:
Drake Jackson secures the starting role. Jackson, a US Army All American, was a highly accomplished player coming out of Woodford County High School. Can he take the appropriate steps to fill Jon Toth’s shoes? Jackson already possesses Jon Toth-like qualities. While a redshirt freshman eligibility wise, he’ll be entering his junior year academically in the fall. Jackson is intelligent, mature and is considered a hard working team-guy.
The other option is to move Bunchy Stallings from guard to center. Stallings came to UK as a center which is his natural position. On National Signing Day I said that he had Dermontti Dawson-like tendencies. Awfully high praise for a high schooler.
However, it can be argued that the UK offensive line started its renaissance when Stallings became a full-time starter at guard. That move provided a more physical, nasty disposition upfront. A move back to center would vacate a starting job at guard which could cause a chain reaction of depth chart modifications. Who’d take over at his vacated spot? Most likely Freshman All SEC performer Logan Stenberg. Perhaps George Asafo-Adjei would kick over to guard from right tackle. Redshirt freshman Luke Fortner also has to be considered in the mix at center, guard, and tackle.
With no college game tape to evaluate, presumably Drake Jackson is capable to handle the responsibility of being the offensive line’s quarterback. Bunchy Stallings is a proven entity. Both are skilled; thus this inquiry is not of the precarious nature. There may be a slight drop-off from Toth to Jackson/Stallings but a new center won’t necessarily limit offensive growth. I fully expect the OL to continue its course as one of the best units in the conference.
Will the Defensive Line increase production?
2016 Defensive End production
Courtney Miggins, Alvonte Bell, Kengera Daniel, and TJ Carter combined for 69 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 1 quarterback sack. As a defense, the Wildcats totaled 21 sacks. Hate to be repetitive, but only 1 from its defensive end can be considered a critical matter.
*Please note that in the 3-4 defense, Denzel Ware is listed as an outside linebacker and at times a defensive end. If his numbers were included, the position would have 6.5 out of the team’s 21 QB sacks and increase its TFL sum from 5.5 to 18.
2016 Nose Tackle production
Naquez Pringle and Matt Elam combined for 48 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 1 quarterback sack. The total is misleading as Pringle accounted for 39 of those tackles, both TFL’s, and the position’s only QB sack.
Mark Stoops has built an escalating secondary and top-tier linebacker corps. However, his defensive line has not produced at a suitable level for a program that is striving to become a consistent contender in the SEC East. This especially applies to its pass rush.
Finding a replacement for Courtney Miggins will be chore number one. Miggins presented a consistent force vs. the run but lacked consistency while pressuring opposing quarterbacks. This task may be a challenge in spring practice due to Alvonte Bell’s absence. He is rehabilitating from an offseason surgery. Bell actually showed flashes of becoming an explosive-play defender. TJ Carter received the Wildcat’s highest grade in the Taxslayer Bowl. Coaches are encouraged about the rising sophomore. But, Carter’s sample size is not large enough to effectively project future production. The upcoming 15 practices are vital for the Georgia native.
Kengera Daniel arrived to campus with a great deal of expectation. He’s yet to live up to that lofty billing. Now a junior, Daniel will be expected to deliver results. His spring development will be a closely monitored storyline.
No matter if it’s Carter, Bell, Daniel, or a newcomer; the defensive end position has to escalate production. Another season with 1 collective QB sack could significantly impede defensive and team progress.
Nose tackle Naquez Pringle’s improvement and development have been documented on Kentucky Sports Radio on many occasions. The senior-to-be advanced into a reliable and beneficial commodity. But, he needs help. In the final 3 games of the 2016 season that relief did not come from fellow NT Matt Elam.
Elam is entering his senior year and has yet to display on-field reliability. However, all is not lost as he has one more season to prove his worth. If he’s not the answer to the Wildcat’s NT depth deficiency in spring practice, then new defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc will have no other choice than to move on to redshirt freshmen Kordell Looney and/or Ja’Quize Cross.
Obviously there are more than two questions leading into spring practice. The center dilemma is more of an awaiting for an anxious development than question mark as solidity surrounding the position is at an extremely high level. Defensive line is another matter. Simply put, Kentucky must manufacture a line-of-scrimmage pass rush and become more stringent vs. the run. Spring practice starts on Sunday.