The Kentucky Wildcats started their offseason later and happier than they do in most winters. Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl win capped a 10-win season which was the program’s first since 1977. While repeating 10 wins would be a tall task, Kentucky heads into the offseason looking to keep its positive mojo. With spring practice just around the corner, here’s what form that might take.
1. Lock down the (remaining) coaches
A 10-3 season at Kentucky tends to get the attention of other athletic directors and head coaches. Granted, the Mark Stoops to Miami rumor lasted about 10 minutes, and the Eddie Gran to Georgia rumor went about 15. Defensive coordinator Matt House did leave for the Kansas City Chiefs, but otherwise, Kentucky hasn’t suffered any other staff defections. Part of what helped Kentucky build to this point has been staff continuity, so look for Stoops and Mitch Barnhart to do everything possible to keep this group as intact as possible.
2. Tune up the passing game
Kentucky’s passing game picked up just 162 yards per game last year, which was last in the SEC and in the bottom 20 percent of FBS. The presence of Benny Snell enabled Kentucky to just grind through some poor offensive games … but Snell will be using his skills in the NFL next fall and not in Lexington.
Terry Wilson, who did help by picking up over 500 yards on the ground in 2018, has to become a more proficient and confident passer … and has to have more effective receivers who can turn 50/50 balls into catches.
3. Identify (or find) a playmaker or 2
As noted above, Kentucky’s passing game had more struggles than triumphs in 2018. Wilson will be a year older and more experienced, but Kentucky’s biggest offensive need are more playmakers who can create separation in the secondary and make big plays.
Recruit Wandale Robinson looked like one of those guys, but he flipped to Nebraska shortly before Early Signing Day.
Returning junior receiver Lynn Bowden is one returning player like that, but the Wildcats would benefit by shoring up one or two more contributors. Signing Day ended with strikeouts, both from JUCO Javonte Richardson, who apparently has academic issues and didn’t sign, and from Davonte Lee, who chose LSU.
Stoops has to either add a transfer or get more comfortable with one of the options already on campus.
4. Plug in some new faces in the secondary
While Kentucky’s senior class was significant in many areas, virtually the entire secondary consisted of seniors. Who won’t be back in 2019? Starting safeties Mike Edwards and Darius West, corners Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry.
That group combined in 2018 for 250 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 7 interceptions, and another 25 passes broken up.
Kentucky does return a few experienced DBs — Davonte Robinson (42 tackles) and reserves Jordan Griffin (13 tackles) and Tyrell Ajian (10 tackles and an interception). But much of the slack will be taken up with newcomers, like last-minute signee M.J. Devonshire or JUCOs Quandre Mosely and Brandin Echols. Whoever will play, Kentucky better get them acclimated in a hurry.
5. Own Kentucky in recruiting
Coming off a 2018 class in which UK signed zero in-state players, the Wildcats stumbled early on a talented 2019 in-state group. They did make up ground late, signing Louisville talents Jared Casey and J.J. Weaver.
As of now, the class of 2020 has 10 Kentucky prospects within 247sports.com’s top 1,000 players. Two of the top three have committed early to Notre Dame and Clemson. As much good work as Kentucky did with under-the-radar stars like Benny Snell and Josh Allen, if UK wants to rip off semi-regular 10-win seasons, it needs to start nabbing some on-the-radar players, preferably those with 4- or even 5-star talent.
Home is as good of a place to start as any, and Kentucky’s success with players like QB Beau Allen, OL John Young, and DB Vito Tisdale could be pivotal.