Kentucky football: Analyzing the Wildcats' projected starting lineup
A year after an unlikely 10-win season, Kentucky is looking to fill in the spots of some high-performing players. With losses from Nagurski Award winner Josh Allen to all-time school leading rusher Benny Snell to virtually the entire secondary, there’s plenty to ponder as UK works out its starting lineups in fall camp. Kentucky will return only 4 offensive and defensive starters (although the offense does gain a boost with a 2017 starter who missed 2018 returning).
With that said, here’s a look at their projected starting lineup and how they might perform in 2019.
Backfield (Life after Benny)
QB: Terry Wilson
RB: A.J. Rose
With a year of starting experience, look for Wilson to assume a much bigger role in 2019. While he completed 67% of his passes in 2018, he was inconsistent on longer throws, passing for just 1,889 yards and a modest 11 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. More will be expected — and needed — of Wilson, who also will be a key cog in the running attack.
Meanwhile, at running back, UK has to adjust to life after the school’s all-time leading rusher, Benny Snell. Rose rushed for 442 yards and 6.2 yards per carry behind Snell last season. He’s faster, although not as feisty between the tackles as Snell. Depth comes from redshirt freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez, each of whom played well in a few snaps last season.
OL (lose 3, regain a crucial one)
LT: Landon Young
LG: Logan Stenberg
C: Drake Jackson
RG: Luke Fortner
RT: Darian Kinnard
Kentucky’s line paved the way for 199 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry last season. The Wildcats lost starters Bunchy Stallings, George Asafo-Adjei and early departure E.J. Price. That said, the Wildcats are looking forward to the return of Young, a massive talent who is probably the best pro prospect of Kentucky’s line. Stenberg and Jackson are tough and experienced, and Kinnard played a kind of utility tackle role last season, starting 2 games.
The departed players will be missed, but under Stoops and line coach John Schlarman, Kentucky has rotated linemen throughout the last few seasons. Kentucky returns eight experienced offensive linemen, and there’s no reason to expect much of a fall off in production from 2018.
Wide receivers/tight ends (Who steps up?)
WR: Lynn Bowden
WR: Josh Ali
WR: Ahmad Wagner
TE: Justin Rigg
Kentucky had little to lose here with one of the SEC’s most modest passing attacks last season (just 161 yards per game through the air). That said, 5 of UK’s top 7 receivers from last season are gone, including tight end C.J. Conrad and talented but underachieving receiver Tavin Richardson.
What’s back is Bowden … and not much else. Bowden’s 67 grabs for 745 yards and 5 scores last year established him as Kentucky’s top multi-talented offensive threat. He’ll catch short passes, deep balls, and even run some Wildcat-formation QB.
Beyond Bowden, Ali is the next-best returning, with a humble 10 catches for 115 yards last year. The Wildcats were hoping Isaiah Epps could be the threat to stretch defenses vertically at 6-2, but he injured his foot and will miss a few games. Former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner (6-5) or spring game phenom Bryce Oliver are capable replacements. Tight end will be manned by Justin Rigg, who caught 7 passes last season and was capable alongside Conrad. He might be a better receiver than Conrad, although UK often employed Conrad as a lead blocker; it’s unlikely they do much of that with Rigg. Still, somebody has to catch some passes.
Defensive line (Depth and size)
DE: Calvin Taylor
NG: Quinton Bohanna
DE: T.J. Carter
Kentucky’s defense tends toward a 3-4 look, although the pass rushing linebacker can assume traditional defensive end roles. The listed linemen are basically lane cloggers, occupying the offensive line and giving the ‘backers chances to make plays. Lightly recruited players like Taylor and Carter are massive — the former goes 6-9, 310 pounds, and both have grown into solid contributors. Bohanna is a brick wall in the middle of the line at 6-4 and 345 pounds, and he has steadily impressed his coaches over the past 2 seasons.
Kentucky has more depth than before, with former JUCO Phil Hoskins helping as a pass rusher and massive sophomore Marquan McCall (6-3, 355 pounds) backing up Bohanna in clogging up running lanes. These players are never going to grab a ton of attention, but Stoops generally cobbles together impressive production from a fairly lightly-recruited group of linemen.
Linebackers (Free Xavier?)
ILB: Xavier Peters (?) or Chris Oats
ILB: Kash Daniel
ILB: DeAndre Square
OLB: Jamar Watson
There’s one massive mystery here, and that’s whether the NCAA will give Florida State transfer Xavier Peters clearance to play this fall at Kentucky. If they do, he might start as a redshirt freshman.
— Curtis Burch (@curtisburch) August 5, 2019
There are other players in the mix, and sophomore Chris Oats is too good to not see a ton of time. But Peters is the kind of recruit who could take much of the sting out of the loss of Josh Allen to the NFL.
Daniel is the captain of the defense, and his 84 tackles makes him the top returnee in that category. Square and Oats basically played interchangeably last season as true freshmen, and either is capable of big plays. Also, former defensive lineman Joshua Paschal, who missed most of last season due to a cancer scare, has been moved to an outside spot, and he figures to see plenty of time. It’s a good group, and if Peters is cleared, it could be the strongest position group on UK’s roster.
CB: Cedrick Dort
CB: Brandin Echols
S: Jordan Griffin
S: Tyrell Ajian
Kentucky lost pretty much everything here, with safeties Mike Edwards and Darius West and corners Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity, and Chris Westry all gone. All the recent season-ending injury of safety Davonte Robinson, and Kentucky’s choices here are greener and greenest of young players. If the Cats have a weak link — aside from the wide receivers — this is the group.
Dort played well as a freshman backup, and Griffin and Ajian both got some occasional playing time last fall. Echols is a JUCO, and it stands to reason that he and other newcomers like freshmen Moses Douglass and M.J. Devonshire and JUCO Marquez Bembry will get shots at earning some clock. Who steps up and how quickly might be the pivotal question of UK’s season.
Special Teams (G’Day, Punter)
K: Chance Poore
P: Max Duffy
Returner: Lynn Bowden
Duffy is an Aussie import who did a great job in his first of 3 years of eligibility, averaging 44.8 yards per kick, and limiting returns with frequent rugby-style effort. Chance Poore retained his redshirt despite going 2-for-4 in a brief trial on field goals. His leg is strong, but accuracy is still something of an unknown. Bowden returns kicks and has shown explosiveness on punt returns, although UK’s staff might prefer to let someone else get some work there.
Final thought …
Different doesn’t automatically mean worse. That will be a common theme for Kentucky this season.
These Cats are different, but their goal is to get back to 10 wins. Kentucky has never posted back-to-back 10-win seasons. It’s important to remember, and Kentucky fans do, that Snell and Allen didn’t arrive in Lexington with any fanfare, either. Stoops has recruited and developed well enough to earn a benefit of the doubt, even though the national view on Kentucky’s season is more gloom than glory.