Editor’s note: This is the third in a series previewing every SEC team’s offense, starting with the East Division. Coming Thursday: Missouri.
After a 10-win season that ended in a Citrus Bowl victory and a No. 11 national ranking, the general assumption is that there’s only one way for the Kentucky Wildcats to trend in 2019. After all, when you finish the team’s best season since 1977 and send off the school’s largest NFL Draft contingent in memory, it’s not hard to understand why most preseason predictors expect diminishing returns for UK in 2019. But here’s the thing: The Kentucky offense reasonably could — make that should — improve in 2019.
The Wildcats’ 26.6 points per game in 2018 ranked just 12th in the league in scoring, and their 360.8 yards per game again was only two spots from the bottom of the league rankings. Given the personnel who return, there’s absolutely no reason Kentucky can’t improve both marks in 2019 — and indeed, their season might depend on it.
Passing offense: Better
Frankly, while UK’s program as a whole might seem to have nowhere to go but down, there’s nowhere for the passing attack to go but up. Kentucky was dead last in the SEC with 161.5 passing yards per game. While their pass efficiency was a bit better (12th), UK attempted the fewest passes in the SEC (296) and had the fewest passing touchdowns (14).
Junior QB Terry Wilson wasn’t all bad. He completed over 67% of his passes, but was rarely asked to do anything beyond keep the defense halfway honest in the onslaught of Kentucky’s ground attack. Wilson passed for just 1,889 yards, with 11 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. Given Kentucky’s stout defense and reliance on a potent ground attack, an offensive aversion to risk was part of UK’s game plan … but things could change this fall.
Kentucky had only two players who caught more than 17 passes last year, and while tight end C.J. Conrad graduated (30 catches, 318 yards, 3 TDs), junior receiver Lynn Bowden does give UK a bona fide big-play threat in the passing game.
Bowden’s 67 grabs for 745 yards and 5 scores comfortably led UK in each category. Young receivers like Josh Ali (10 catches, 115 yards, 1 TD) and Isaiah Epps (8 catches, 76 yards) have flashed big-play potential, and will be relied upon much more heavily in the post-Josh Allen and Benny Snell era. Wilson was sharper in the spring, and UK will be more willing to call his number on intermediate and deep throws than they were last year. Backup Gunnar Hoak has transferred to Ohio State, but will be replaced by Troy QB Sawyer Smith, who similarly would be a solid pass-first second option at QB.
Running offense: (Slightly) Worse
Kentucky emphasized power football in 2018, and having the school’s all-time leading rusher in bowling-ball back Benny Snell allowed that choice. Snell finished 2018 with 1,449 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, and his 289 carries led the SEC. Kentucky finished sixth in the SEC in rushing with 199.4 yards per game on the ground, including 4.8 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns. In 2017, Kentucky averaged 161.7 yards per game on the ground, and that seems like a more likely level of production for 2019.
Snell is gone, as is bullish lead blocker tight end C.J. Conrad. Kentucky’s line also lost George Asafo-Adjei and center Bunchy Stallings, but the Wildcats return a talented corps of veteran linemen, including junior tackle Landon Young, who missed the entire 2018 season due to injury.
On the ground, Kentucky will likely feature junior back Asim Rose, who had 442 yards and 5 scores in relief of Snell in 2018. Rose’s 6.2 yards per carry demonstrates that he might be more of an open-field threat than Snell, although he’ll be hard-pressed to better Snell’s short-yardage production. Freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez impressed in brief bursts of playing time, but each managed to redshirt.
The X-factor in Kentucky’s ground game is Wilson, the mobile QB who rushed for 547 yards and 4 scores last season. In some games, Wilson struggled with RPO reads, but if he can do a better job of determining when the pull the ball and when to leave it with the back, he could threaten the 1,000 yard mark himself — which would make matters easier for Rose and the line.
Still, Kentucky’s productivity almost has to drop a bit without Snell — perhaps not so much in yardage as in general efficiency. With Snell, on 3rd-and-2, conversions were almost inevitable. Those will be hard shoes to fill, and until Kentucky can fill them, its ground game will likely take a small step back.
Special teams: Better
Kentucky’s kicking game was sloppy in 2018, with attempts divided between senior Miles Butler, who was accurate, but not terribly viable on long kicks (just 4-for-8 beyond 30 yards) and freshman Chance Poore, who went 2-for-4 but managed to keep his redshirt season. Poore will have the job in 2019, and has looked much better in spring work. Missed field goals hurt Kentucky a few times, especially in its overtime loss at Texas A&M.
Meanwhile, Lynn Bowden gives Kentucky a home-run threat on kick and punt returns, although it’ll be interesting to see if the UK staff uses him less on special teams with his receiving skills being a pivotal part of the offense.
Kentucky’s offense didn’t post great numbers in 2018, but it won games largely on the back of the defense. That defense will struggle to equal its 2018 marks this season, but it will give the offense the freedom to take a few more shots. Wilson is a year older and wiser, and while Snell will be missed, Kentucky returns capable running back talent.
Kentucky will pass the ball better in 2019 than it did in 2018, which might take the sting out of a slight decline in the ground game.
Kentucky’s program figures to be more balanced in 2019, both in terms of the run versus the pass and also in terms of relying on the offense as well as the defense. Wilson and Rose could surprise — and Kentucky might well need them to, if the Wildcats want to approach last season’s results.