LEXINGTON — Kentucky finished its spring practice slate Friday night with a bizarrely scored spring game in front of an announced crowd of 36,090. The game pitted offense against defense, rather than a blue team against a white team, as in most previous years, and the offense was credited with a 45-32 victory that brought to mind the line from the comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway — “everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
But plenty did matter — mostly the team’s improvement or lack thereof in several concerning areas. The game’s star was sophomore running back A.J. Rose, whose 134 yards rushing on just 11 carries appeared to settle one previously held question: Who would back up Kentucky star Benny Snell? The offensive line also looked relatively cohesive and the secondary showed significant improvement throughout the scrimmage.
That said, there are several questions that were unresolved before the game—and were equally unanswered after it. Here are five still unanswered questions that UK will look to answer before their September 1st opener against Central Michigan.
1. Who will be under center?
After two years that ended up surprisingly settled under Stephen Johnson, the helm of the UK offense is entirely up for grabs. Would-be senior Drew Barker gave up football, a decision that has left four returning QBs fighting for the job, although it’s probably a competition between third-year UK sophomore Gunnar Hoak and newcoming JUCO sophomore Terry Wilson.
Both had their moments — Hoak with game management and accurate intermediate passes and Wilson with elusiveness and downfield throws. Both also had their struggles — Hoak didn’t show a dynamic extra gear, and Wilson missed some easy throws and had a fumble and an interception. For the record, Hoak finished 14-for-25 for 121 yards and a score passing and Wilson was 10-for-24 for 131 yards and an interception. Wilson appeared poised to break several long runs as well, but the rules of the game allowed the defense to merely touch a quarterback to bring the play to an end.
This battle may go well into fall camp (Stoops said after the game that he really did not have a timeline on when he would make a decision) and could reflect the intended aims of the Kentucky offense — will they play safe and lean on Benny Snell with Hoak or gamble on Wilson’s inexperienced upside?
2. Who is going to catch the ball?
Kentucky lost senior leader Garrett Johnson at receiver, and played the spring without healing wideout Dorian Baker and tight ends C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg. This left little receiving experience in Lexington, and it showed in the spring game. Experienced playmaker Tavin Richardson is something of a known quality, but in the spring game, sophomore Lynn Bowden struggled to break free as the team’s designated big play threat. Bowden caught seven passes but for just 42 yards.
A trio of talented sophomores — Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps, and Clevan Thomas — all drew enough respect to avoid redshirting as true freshmen. That said, the trio caught just eight passes combined in 2017. They caught 10 passes in the spring game, with Epps leading the way with four catches for 44 yards and Ali contributing a touchdown grab.
The surprise of the group is probably sophomore Zy’Aire Hughes. He was a defensive back last season, but caught four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. While Hughes has added his name to the mix, no Kentucky receiver pulled in a deep ball in any of the 103 offensive plays run in the spring game. There were opportunities, and finding the player who can do that (aside from the healing Baker) could be a key to 2018.
3. Will the pass rush be one of the better ones in the SEC?
Kentucky had 30 sacks in 2017, and they return 97 percent of that production. Seniors John Allen and Denzil Ware have proven themselves as SEC talents, but can additional Wildcats step up and make the unit fearsome for all the passing QBs who UK will face in the fall?
The spring game told virtually nothing here, since sacking a QB was a mere matter of touching him. Over the years, if Kentucky’s defense played under those rules, they might well have doubled their sack totals. But can UK’s defensive line actually bring opposing passers to the ground? The defense totaled six “sacks” in the spring game, and a couple of apparent standouts were sophomore Josh Paschal and junior Calvin Taylor. Paschal is probably UK’s most likely third addition to the Allen/Ware duo, but there are still plenty of questions head into the fall.
4. Can anybody (other than Mike Edwards) cover in the secondary?
UK allowed an embarrassing 251.6 passing yards per game in 2017, as well as 21 touchdowns. Senior Mike Edwards was an All-SEC level player, but returning cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity struggled with consistency. In the spring game, they looked better — but this raises the eternal spring situation.
Was UK’s secondary better because they faced relatively little receiving talent, including no real deep threat … or because they’re better?
Safety Darius West missed the game because of a death in his family. Edwards played well — tallying the only interception of the spring game — but it’s still to be determined whether others will step up in similar fashion.
5. Who is going to kick?
True freshman Chance Poore might win the kicking job in the fall, but senior Miles Butler was solid, connecting on all extra points and hitting a 43-yard field goal. If Poore isn’t ready immediately, Butler could be the man.
In the punting competition, sophomore transfer looks to have a leg up on junior Grant McKinniss, as Duffy averaged 44 yards per punt against under 37 per kick for McKinniss. But both players were kicking with no rush and no potential for a return … so it’s not clear how much to draw from what happened in the spring game. Kind of like everything else.