CRAWFORD | Opportunity knocking (again) for Kentucky as 2016 season opens
The SEC East is a bit down. Can Kentucky take advantage? WDRB's Eric Crawford previews the Wildcats' 2016 season.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- By now, we’ve seen the wobbly start by teams from the SEC East. We haven’t seen Georgia yet, but Tennessee appeared human, and I’m not sure how to describe Vanderbilt or South Carolina. Florida should be good. I’m not sure, however, the Gators are back to being Florida.
The big question in these parts, however, is whether Kentucky is going to keep being Kentucky.
Think about this. How many football seasons have come around when you can go through the SEC portion of Kentucky’s schedule and find as many games you think the Wildcats should win than as you think they should lose? Once in a Blue Moon?
That Blue Moon may well be shining on Kentucky football right now.
The 2016 season gets under way tonight for the Wildcats, and there are no guarantees. There’s not even a guarantee that they will beat a good Southern Miss team in their opener at 7:30 in Commonwealth Stadium tonight.
The Wildcats need some things to go right. They need Drew Barker to be a solid quarterback (not a great one, just solid will be fine) and they need him to stay healthy. They need some reliable players to emerge up front on defense. They need some of the young defensive talent coach Mark Stoops has recruited to play up to its billing.
I know what you’re saying. Since when has Kentucky football gotten a break? Maybe the Wildcats are due.
Regardless, the potential is there for a season that is far better than the norm. There’s also potential for catastrophe. You’ve seen that in the preseason predictions. The SEC Network predicts a 7-5 finish, and that’s even including a loss to Vanderbilt. One Sports Illustrated writer, Gabriel Baumgaertner, picked the Wildcats to go 3-9.
One area of improvement that nobody will be able to judge until game time -- though Stoops already is pleased with it -- is in the area of strength and endurance. Stoops wanted his players pushed harder in the offseason, and he got that. As a result, he says they’ve been able to practice harder, for longer stretches, in the preseason.
“I'm tired of working on the broad strokes,” Stoops said. “Our team has the foundation to handle more, to practice longer, to have good, detailed practices. We're physically and mentally better. That's what I'm most excited about.”
Offensively, the Wildcats are in better shape than many teams in the SEC East. They return more starters than anyone in the league. Barker could emerge as one of the league’s better quarterbacks if he can live up to his considerable billing.
“I’m excited to see Drew take the field a year older and with all the work that he’s put in,” Stoops said. “I’m excited to see him play.”
New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran knows what he’s doing. He wants the offense to be able to strike quickly, but also knows the importance of toughness and being able to grind out yards. Kentucky has the running backs to do it in Boom Williams and JoJo Kemp. It has capable receivers, with a new wideout coach in Lamar Thomas, whose mission this offseason has been to eliminate the debilitating drops that have hurt the program in the past few years.
The offense may be the unit that carries much of the load this season. If it can score points,, get leads, put pressure on opponents, it can help the defense considerably.
Stoops said he’s been pleased with Gran’s installation of the new offensive system, and the way his players have taken to it.
“It’s been a great rapport,” Stoops said. “I think it says a lot about the maturity of our players. They’ve been around. They have been through three coordinators and these guys have played a lot of football. I think it says a lot about Eddie and the staff and the relentless work that they’ve done around the clock to get it done. These guys have put in a lot of time and a lot of work. And again, our players have been trained to be put in this situation. It’s taken some time and it’s taken some lumps, but these guys have been around a while now. A lot of these players now on offense have been through a lot of big games.”
It’s on defense where the bigger questions lie. Injuries have taken a toll. Defections have left some difficult holes to fill, none moreso than Reggie Meant right up front. When your front seven is a mystery, it’s hard to generate much preseason excitement. That puts more pressure, in some ways, on Matt Elam in the middle of the Wildcats defense. But he’s not yet to the point of being an every down player.
In some ways, as Stoops has churned through offensive coordinators, Stoops’ attention has been pulled increasingly to offense during his time at Kentucky. He’s never had quite the offensive scheme to complement what he’s trying to do defensively. While that doesn’t figure to be a problem this season, Stoops is going to have some guys play beyond their years defensively.
“You always have your concerns,” he said on the team’s media day. “You wish you had some depth. . . . You've heard me talk about it. You never have enough. You always want more. You always want more strength, more playmakers, more depth. That's always a work in progress. Again, we're better than we've been. We'll continue to build that depth. We will play some young guys in certain spots. We'll see how that goes.”
Youth doesn’t necessarily mean difficulty. Kentucky’s secondary is young, but it ranks among the best in the SEC, and rightfully so.
But youth does mean uncertainty, and Stoops feels it.
“I think there’s a lot of questions as you go into game one,” Stoops said. “I stated that earlier at some press conferences where there is that excitement, that anxiety, the uneasy feeling and the unknown, because we have a good idea who this team is but I don’t know exactly until we go play. So, there’s a lot of unknowns. You don’t know how guys are going to respond when the lights come on and it’s a real game.”
Game 1 features a Southern Miss team that won nine games last season, and which returns a starting quarterback, Nick Mullins, who threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns. Shannon Dawson, fired by Stoops as UK offensive coordinator at the end of last season, returns to Commonwealth calling the plays for Southern Miss.
It’s not a “must win” game for Stoops. But it’s a game he’d better win. In his fourth year at Kentucky, it’s time to turn a corner, and at the very least reach a bowl game. Ready or not.
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