Five players to keep an eye on during Kentucky's training camp
The Kentucky Wildcats are still a basketball school playing in the nation’s premier football conference, but head coach Mark Stoops has changed the culture surrounding the program as he heads into his second year in Lexington.
The Cats’ uphill battle for SEC supremacy has seemed far less daunting since Stoops’ arrival in the Bluegrass. Despite just one SEC win in the last three seasons combined, the new head coach has recruited – and signed – a higher class of player over the last two years than Joker Phillips had in his three years as head coach.
The upgrade in talent was immediately noticeable. In Stoops’ first season in 2013 Kentucky had to rely heavily on first-year players with no prior experience at the FBS level, and those close to the program are hoping those growing pains begin to pay major dividends heading into the 2014 season.
With that in mind, here are five players to watch for as ‘Stoops Troops’ open Year 2 of the regime with their first practice Monday:
1. Patrick Towles (QB): Although most of the hype surrounding the quarterback position has involved new four-star freshman Drew Barker, Towles could be the perfect carry-over quarterback as Barker gets up to speed against SEC competition. Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown have not made a decision as to who will be the team’s starter under center when UK begins the regular season against UT-Martin on August 30, and Barker is thought to still be in the running, along with Towles and the oft-injured Maxwell Smith.
Barker may be the most talented of the three candidates, but he is also the least prepared. Should Kentucky elect to protect its prize recruit with a redshirt season to learn and develop, Towles would seemingly be the guy to take snaps with the first-team.
A former Phillips recruit, Towles has the build (6-foot-5, 238 pounds) and the arm strength to run Brown’s Air Raid. In limited playing time as a freshman in 2012, Towles showed flashes that he could command an offense against SEC defenses, albeit defenses with no film on Towles since high school. He redshirted last season and was able to watch and learn as Brown implemented the new offense, and could be the perfect fit to run it until Barker is ready.
Impatient fans will surely want to see Barker on the field as quickly as possible, but if Towles has a strong camp and can earn the job for a year, allowing Barker to develop more naturally, it could benefit the program both short- and long-term.
2. Bud Dupree (DE/LB): Dupree is UK’s most dangerous defender and is the one Kentucky Wildcat garnering national attention this preseason. Phil Steele and the Associated Press both named Dupree a second-team All-SEC performer following last season, when he registered 61 tackles and a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss and a 7 sacks.
On a defense still lacking at linebacker and in the secondary, Dupree’s pass rushing abilities will be vital. To this point, he has been the one player on Kentucky’s roster who has translated his other-worldly physical gifts into monster numbers on the field. As Stoops, a former defensive coordinator, continues to attract promising defensive recruits like true sophomore Jason Hatcher and junior college transfer Za’Darius Smith, Dupree’s ability to draw double-teams and burn linemen in one-on-one matchups will extend far beyond his end of the defensive line.
With one season left in Lexington before almost certainly moving on to the NFL, Dupree has the potential to register double-digit sacks and live in opposing backfields. His success under the heap of expectations will go a long way in determining the success of Kentucky’s defense in 2014.
3. Darrian Miller (OT): Miller is far and away the team’s most experienced and well-rounded player on the offensive side of the ball. The 6-foot-5, 292-pound left tackle has played in all 36 of Kentucky’s games over the last three seasons, starting 26 of those games including the last 24 in a row.
Miller will anchor the offensive line this year, and in addition to how he protects his quarterback’s blind side in the Air Raid coaches will be watching to see how he leads his fellow offensive lineman on and off the field. He is the team’s best pass-protecting lineman, it’s best lineman blocking in space on a screen pass or stretch run and it’s most experienced player at any position against SEC competition. His leadership abilities will be as vital to the offense’s success as his blocking.
4. Jojo Kemp (RB): Former UK tailback Raymond Sanders graduated following last season, leaving the backfield duties to Kemp in his second year in Lexington. Kemp was the team’s leading rusher in 2013 despite splitting time with Sanders in the backfield, carrying the ball 100 times for 482 yards and three touchdowns for the season. He also caught nine passes for 56 yards.
Kemp’s strengths are his speed and his ability to make defenders miss. The key will be to get Kemp the ball in the open field and let him make the magic happen. In Brown’s Air Raid offense, this should not be an issue. But coaches will be watching to see how Kemp plays in pass protection to see how much he can be utilized on a down-to-down basis in the pass-heavy offense. Kemp was primarily a change-of-pace back opposite Sanders in 2013, rarely running between the tackles or taking on bigger defenders in pass protection. If he wants to take the next step in Kentucky’s offense, he will need to improve in both those areas.
Coaches rave about his surprising ability to stay on his feet after first contact, but can he do it for an entire season? Can he take on a blitzing safety to give his quarterback the extra moment he needs on a timing route? Or is he simply a product of his own athletic gifts, requiring a specific role to maximize his value? These are the questions UK’s coaching staff will be looking to answer as Kemp heads into his second year in the SEC.
5. Javess Blue (WR): Blue burst on the scene for the Wildcats in 2o13 as a junior college transfer, catching 43 balls for 586 yards and four touchdowns, including a 30-yard touchdown catch against Alabama – the first TD the Tide had allowed in four weeks. As he enters his final season of collegiate eligibility, coaches and fans will be watching for how he adjusts to being a No. 1 receiver in the Air Raid offense, with teams game-planning around him more than most other players.
Much like Kemp, Blue’s greatest asset is his ability to make defenders miss in the open field, and most of his numbers from last season were the result of quick slants and bubble screens. Ultimately the goal of the Air Raid offense will be to stretch the field vertically, not just horizontally, and Blue’s speed makes him a prime target down the field.