SEC spring football forecast: Kentucky Wildcats

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky

With the offseason officially underway, SDS will examine what’s next for spring football for all 14 teams. And finishing us up is Kentucky.

Kentucky officially opens spring practice Friday, and the Blue and White spring game is set for April 26th.

What’s changing?

For Kentucky, it’s about what hopefully will change. Everything has to change after two straight two-win seasons under two head coaches; last year tested the will of Mark Stoops. Kentucky was supposed to unveil an offense that was conducive to scoring points, but because of personnel issues, that offense was never fully unveiled. Even doubling the win total from two to four would bring the Wildcats’ hope for the future under Stoops, who’s making some serious moves in recruiting. Key pieces are in place to have a successful season, but it really depends on what success will be defined as in 2014.

RELATED: Kentucky wasn’t the SEC’s worst team last year

Position of concern

Although finding a quarterback will be of the utmost media interest, the offensive line struggled to bust a grape last year. The Cats’ front line protection gave up an SEC-leading 37 sacks in 12 games, over three per game, and they allowed over 7.4 tackles for loss per game. The Cats finished 112th in the country in allowing sacks; that’s nowhere close to where they have to be to even become bowl eligible. Kentucky loses left tackle Darrian Miller and right guard Kevin Mitchell to graduation, and they return their best offensive lineman in left guard Zach West. The improvement of the offensive line will be crucial this spring.

RELATED: SEC Pre-Spring Power Rankings

Position of strength

No doubt the Cats’ best position right now is defensive end. With bookends Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree returning, Stoops knows his defensive line should be okay, even with rebuilding some key interior pieces. They return a combined 120 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The Wildcats’ offense may be lacking, but the defense has a chance to be rather swell, headlined by the defensive end duo.

Three signees who will get you excited

1. Drew Barker, QB: You have to start with Drew Barker, who could legitimately win the quarterback job this spring. He’s the future of the program, and he’s out to take someone’s position this spring.

2. Thaddeus Snodgrass, WR: Snodgrass should help the Cats’ receiving corps immediately, and he’s a playmaker you need to get excited about. Like Barker, he’s also an early enrollee.

3. Cory Johnson, DT: Speaking of needing help on the interior defensive line, Cory Johnson will be there to answer the call. The JUCO transfer is ready to provide ability and depth immediately.

MORE: Kentucky’s National Signing Day recap

Spring’s primary position battle

All eyes for Kentucky’s Air Raid offense will be on the quarterbacks. Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown have options. Even though Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow have the most experience, the job could come down to redshirt freshman Reese Phillips or early enrollee Drew Barker. Smith has the SEC’s second most career passing yards among active players, and he may not even start. The wildcard is Patrick Towles, who has shown some nice talent, but he hasn’t put it all together yet.

Emerging spring player prediction

One player who will excite the coaching staff this spring will be Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who averaged seven yards per carry in two career seasons with the Huskers. I actually think Heard is the Cats’ most important player this spring, and he’ll be one to watch in 2014.

Offseason’s burning question

Can Kentucky work towards doubling their win total?

Cats’ offseason crystal ball

Mark Stoops won’t name a quarterback leader exiting spring unless one just absolutely makes him; I do think Drew Barker will exit spring as a prominent player very much in the quarterback race, and he may even be the leader. But the media may not know it, as Stoops will play his hand close to the vest. With another year in the same system, the offense should look better than last year. At times it was unwatchable, much like Florida’s, but the Cats just didn’t have the personnel to run the Air Raid attack.

Photo Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

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