Ranking the five players most important to Kentucky's success this season
There is nowhere to go but up for a Kentucky program with just four total wins over the last two years, and all indications out of Lexington are this year’s Wildcats are ready to take a step forward in the SEC.
The Cats relied on a number of freshmen last season who should return as productive sophomores in 2014, and brought in another top-tier recruiting class over the offseason. But who are the five most important players to the team’s success in 2014?
Let’s break it down:
1. The starting quarterback: It’s far from daring to say a team’s starting quarterback is its most important player, but that notion is especially true at Kentucky. The Cats haven’t had a definitive opening day starter at quarterback since Mike Hartline in 2010, and the hope is whoever assumes the job this season is able to keep it for more than a couple weeks. The sooner Kentucky chooses a quarterback, the sooner offensive coordinator Neal Brown can tweak UK’s Air Raid offense to suit that guy’s skill-set. This team needs a face, and the quarterback is likely to be that face. So while every team’s quarterback is important to its success, Kentucky will have a lot vested in the arm of whoever it chooses in training camp.
2. Bud Dupree: Dupree remains Kentucky’s most highly regarded player on the national scene, earning his way onto the Bednarik, Nagurski and Hendricks Award watch lists this preseason. The senior defensive end has the experience and the physical tools to finish in the top-five in the SEC in sacks and tackles-for-loss this season, and it is imperative he live up to those expectations if the Cats wish to emerge as a sleeper team in the SEC East. Most of the talent around Dupree remains raw and unproven, and the senior defensive end won’t be able to avoid the attention he’ll receive from opposing offensive coordinators all year long. With Dupree playing to his abilities, the Cats’ defense could cause problems for the new quarterbacks at South Carolina, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
3. Darrian Miller: Like Dupree, Miller is a senior with multiple years of experience in the starting lineup under his belt. Although UK returns four of its five starters on the offensive line from last season, none have the experience to match Miller’s 24 starts over the last two seasons. Furthermore, the Cats’ bookend left tackle will likely protect the blindside of whoever is taking snaps at quarterback, adding to his importance at left tackle. Kentucky will need consistent, All-SEC-caliber play out of Miller this season to keep its quarterback upright and its offense moving.
4. Khalid Henderson: Henderson is Kentucky’s only returning starter at linebacker in its 4-2-5 defense, making his presence valuable to the Wildcats. Henderson plays weakside linebacker, but he began to emerge a season ago and perform many of the duties former middle linebacker Avery Williamson once did for the Cats. Henderson recorded 51 tackles despite playing only half the season as a starter, and added two forced fumbles and an interception. Kentucky is looking for Henderson to continue in his progression and remain a consistency at linebacker as some of UK’s younger players find their roles on defense.
5. Javess Blue: Blue is Kentucky’s top returning wideout, and in the Air Raid offense he will need to have a big season to keep the offense on track. He led the team with 43 receptions for 586 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and proved his big-play ability with a 13-yards-per-catch average for the season. Blue’s ability to create highlight reel plays in the passing game will go a long way toward keeping UK competitive against SEC opponents this season. If defenses must respect Blue with the same attention they give the conference’s other elite receivers, it will open the passing game up for the rest of the UK’s receivers as well as the team’s new starting quarterback in 2014.