Kentucky football: 10 biggest questions (and answers) heading into fall camp
As the blazing summer days crawl by until kickoff, this preseason begins the wondering time. Potential is high, but the uncertainty is even higher. As we approach the SEC 2019 season, here’s what Big Blue Nation might well be pondering.
1. How much better will a healthy Terry Wilson be?
There’s plenty of reason to think that it’s a good bit better. Wilson’s 2 best games — at Florida and at Louisville — bookended several weeks of semi-ineffective play greatly brought about by a knee injury that limited his mobility.
When he was healthy, Wilson’s legs kept defenses honest. And his arm? He has plenty, including SDS’ own Connor O’Gara, calling for a big 2019 from the UK QB.
2. What if Wilson gets hurt again?
Kentucky actually is in pretty good position with graduate transfer Sawyer Smith from Troy. Smith took over as Troy’s starter at midseason in 2018 and had several big games, passing for over 300 yards twice and generally showing big-play ability as a deep threat and as a mobile QB (191 yards rushing). Kentucky lost graduate transfer Gunnar Hoak, but Hoak struggled to complete difficult throws in his few SEC snaps. Granted, Troy isn’t Tuscaloosa, but there’s room for optimism on Smith, who will have 2 seasons of eligibility in Lexington.
3. Who will step up at receiver?
Lynn Bowden is an All-SEC level talent as a receiver, Wildcat QB, or kick returner. But outside of the multi-talented Bowden, Kentucky’s receiver corps is long on potential, but short on results. The most likely prospect to emerge opposite Bowden might be Josh Ali, a junior whose 10 catches in 2018 are 2nd among UK’s returning players. Another candidate is redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver, who starred in Kentucky’s spring game (8 catches, 105 yards), and has the size and strength needed to make plays on the outside. Don’t forget Kentucky’s tight ends, where Justin Rigg might catch more passes than blocking standout C.J. Conrad did.
4. Who will be Kentucky’s comeback player of 2019?
We’ll take Landon Young for $200, Alex.
Given the fuss about Kentucky’s solid offensive line work last year and the loss of Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo-Adjei, it’s easy to forget that the Wildcats’ top NFL prospect was probably the massive Young, who missed the season after an ACL injury. The 6-7 Young was a 4-star recruit who chose UK over Alabama and Ohio State, among others, in 2016. He’s not only large, he’s athletic enough to hang with the SEC’s top pass rushers, and getting him back might offset the 2 starters lost on UK’s line.
5. And who’s Kentucky’s under-the-radar surprise player?
Maybe kicker Chance Poore. Poore was a true freshman who did see some action last year, but managed to stay within the redefined redshirt rule, and will still be a freshman in 2019. Senior Miles Butler handled kicking for most of the 2018 season, and UK made just 60% of field goal tries and didn’t connect on a kick longer than 40 yards. Poore was 2-for-4 in his brief trial, but he does have a noticeably stronger leg than Butler, and if his accuracy is solid, he could end up being a big weapon for a Kentucky team that has taken umpteen SEC games to the final play or two in the last three seasons.
6. Can any aspect of the defense actually improve from 2018?
Actually, yes. Mark Stoops singled out improved interior defense line depth at SEC Media Days, and the D-line in general has some room to improve. Despite how productive Kentucky’s linebacking corps and secondary were, aside from Josh Allen and returnee Jamar “Boogie” Watson, Kentucky didn’t get much help from its defensive line. But the UK coaches remain excited about DT Quinton Bohanna, and with Josh Pascal recovered from melanoma and able to play the full season, Kentucky will boast more and better athletic talent on the line than it had last year — and might well get better results from the group.
7. What new face will fans see early?
How about CB Brandin Echols? Kentucky lost virtually its entire depth chart at the cornerback spot, which was part of the reason they signed two JUCO DBs in Echols and Quandre Mosely. At the end of spring practice, Echols started alongside sophomore Cedric Dort in Kentucky’s first-team defense. That said, the secondary got cooked pretty well in the spring game. But Echols is going to get the first chance to prove that he belongs from Day 1. He was one of the nation’s best JUCO defensive backs last season … but it’s a long way from junior college to the SEC.
8. Can Kentucky keep recruiting this well?
Assuming that the season doesn’t crash and burn (see next two questions), it’s not unreasonable to think so. Given the turmoil at Louisville and a renewed focus on the city by UK recruiting guru Vince Marrow, in-state recruiting is looking promising. Out of state, yes, Kentucky will nab and lose a few blue-chippers. But keeping d-line stud Justin Rogers (at least for the moment) despite interest from Alabama should suggest that Kentucky’s improved recruiting may well be here to stay.
9. What game could be the stumbling block?
Toledo is an opener that could cause some real problems for the Wildcats. With Kentucky trying to adapt to life without its multitude of departed stars, Toledo simply cannot be overlooked. They topped 50 points 6 times last season, and if Kentucky’s defense (particularly the secondary) has a slow start, this could get ugly quickly. Watch for sophomore RB Bryant Koback, who transferred from Kentucky before the 2018 season due to some family issues. His 6 yards per carry last year attests to his Power 5 skill set.
10. Can Kentucky replicate its 10-3 season?
Well, probably not … but it might not be as impossible as it seems at first blush. Yes, Snell and Allen (and virtually the entire secondary) are gone, but the schedule stacks up pretty well, and the returning core of depth is better than in recent memory. Kentucky’s nonconference schedule is as soft as any SEC team will face. Kentucky gets Florida at home, and the Gators might still be figuring out their own depth issues in Week 3. The West crossover opponents are Mississippi State and Arkansas, which is about as lucky as a team can get.
Georgia is imposing, but Kentucky has done remarkably well against Missouri and South Carolina in recent years. The Wildcats could pick up a game on last season’s pace when they host Tennessee, and while 10 wins isn’t necessarily the expectation, 9 wins wouldn’t be shocking.