5 biggest concerns I have about Kentucky in 2019
Like a dog chasing a bus, in 2018, Kentucky finally got what it wanted — a successful season with a 10-3 mark, a Citrus Bowl win, and a No. 11 ranking in the final polls. But like that dog, UK has to decide what to do next. And it might suddenly have its hands full. There’s definitely some reason for concern for the Wildcats in 2019 — and here are 5 of the biggest.
1. The secondary
Kentucky’s secondary was thin before losing safety Davonte Robinson to a quad injury. Robinson is gone for the year, and his loss robs Kentucky of the most experience they had at a position which now will see a ton of unknown players. UK finished the spring with JUCO Brandin Echols and redshirt sophomore Cedrick Dort (6 career tackles) projected to start at the cornerback slots. The likely starting safeties, Jordan Griffin and Tyrell Ajian, combined for just 4 starts and 23 tackles last season. UK went from 252 passing yards per game allowed in 2017 to just 186 last season. It’ll be next to impossible to keep that level of productivity without guys like Mike Edwards, Darius West, Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity and Chris Westry.
2. Life without Benny
Kentucky’s offense was no great shakes in 2018 — averaging 26.6 points and 361 yards per game. But it was efficient and keyed on the ability of power back Benny Snell to turn 3rd downs into 1st downs. But Snell is in the NFL, and while AJ Rose has shown flashes of excellence, he’s more of a speed back than a power back. Even if Rose can equal the 1,449 rushing yards that Snell posted in 2018, he’d be hard-pressed to be as good on 3rd-and-short or goal-line spots as Snell was. Kentucky might well gain more yardage in 2019 … but can the Wildcats still put enough points on the scoreboard without Snell?
3. Playing down to the opponent
Even during Mark Stoops’ run of 3 consecutive bowl games, Kentucky has often struggled to put away weaker opponents. In 2017, Kentucky beat FCS Eastern Kentucky by 11 points (despite being favored by 34.5), and Eastern Michigan by just 4 (as a 14.5-point favorite). Even the 2018 campaign included ho-hum wins over Central Michigan (35-20, as UK trailed early) and Middle Tennessee (34-23, as MTSU outgained UK 463-324). Kentucky can’t afford a stumble against Toledo or Eastern Michigan this season — which means the ‘Cats need to avoid playing down to lesser talent.
4. Problems with the pass rush
As Kentucky has emerged from the SEC cellar, the pass rush has been a key element. After posting between 17 and 27 sacks in Stoops’ first 4 seasons, the Wildcats totaled 30 sacks in 2017 and 38 sacks last season. Of course, Josh Allen had 24 of those 68 sacks (including 17 last year), and he’ll be in the NFL this fall. Kentucky returns some skilled pass rushers, led by linebacker Jamar Watson. But particularly given the inexperienced secondary opposing QBs will face, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything near 38 sacks in 2019. Of course, without a consistent pass rush, UK’s young DBs will be even more vulnerable, so this chicken-and-egg debate could end up ugly either way it goes.
5. Who (besides Bowden) will catch passes?
Kentucky’s passing game was stagnant throughout most of the 2018 season. UK won SEC games despite passing for 18 and 71 yards, respectively. And sure, QB Terry Wilson should be healthy this fall … and without RB Benny Snell, Wilson will get more chances to go to the air. But the offense that put up just 161 yards passing per game last year (UK’s fewest since 2011) lost many of its better receivers. Gone is tight end C.J. Conrad (30 catches, 318 yards). Also gone are slot receiver David Bouvier and outside receiver Dorian Baker, as well as jack-of-all-trades Tavin Richardson. Kentucky’s 2nd-leading returning pass-catcher, junior Josh Ali, caught 10 passes for 115 yards. Yes, cat-quick Lynn Bowden (67 catches, 745 yards in 2018) should be a star … but who else will emerge?