LEXINGTON, Ky. – Mark Stoops’ fourth season at Kentucky is all about getting to the program’s first bowl game since 2010, the last of a school-record five consecutive postseason appearances. So as the Wildcats open fall camp, we take a hard look at some keys to getting back there.
“Have a star quarterback” is an easy one, but it’s not always necessary and it’s a lot to ask of sophomore Drew Barker, who has enough talent around him now that solid play should suffice. Yes, UK had 3,000-yard passers in three of the five bowl seasons from 2006-10, but it also had the ’08 and ’09 seasons in which QBs combined for the same number of interceptions as touchdowns.
This season doesn’t hinge on Barker. Here are a few things that might matter more:
HAVE A SHUTDOWN SECONDARY
For all the (totally reasonable) concern about Kentucky’s unproven front seven on defense, it won’t necessarily torpedo the Cats if Stoops is right about the back end. A longtime secondary guru, he sees “superstars in the making” in an all-sophomore cast of Chris Westry and Derrick Baity at corner and Mike Edwards and Darius West at safety. All four showed significant promise in 2015.
Why that matters: During its five-year run of bowl games from 2006-10, Kentucky struggled to sack the quarterback and couldn’t stop the run, but it typically had a sound secondary. The Cats held opponents under 58 percent completions every season during that stretch – and ranked top-three in the SEC in that category three times.
That offset other deficiencies. UK ranked higher than sixth in the league in sacks only once during the bowl streak; it ranked last twice. And the run defense? Tenth or worse in the SEC every season during the five-bowl run.
So, yeah, the secondary matters, and Stoops has dramatically upgraded his. After allowing a league-worst completion percentage (65.8) his first season in 2013, UK slashed that to 57.1 percent last fall.
FIND A PLAYAMKER AT LINEBACKER
Top-shelf secondary or not, the Cats must get something from the linebackers. And right now, there’s only uncertainty. Kentucky’s four projected starters – Nebraska transfer Courtney Love and sophomores Josh Allen, Denzil Ware and Jordan Jones – combined for just 53 tackles in 2015. That’s a red flag for a program that ranked 12th out of 14 SEC teams in run defense each of Stoops’ first three seasons, with opponents rushing for 200-plus yards in 18 of his 36 games.
The young guys all showed flashes of potential last fall and the staff has raved about Love’s leadership despite never having played a snap for UK. There’s hope that fellow transfers De’Niro Laster (Minnesota) and Jordan Bonner (junior college) can help, too. Same with former 4-star recruits Eli Brown, who redshirted last year, and Kash Daniel, who enrolled in January.
Bottom line: at least one star must emerge from the group. During the bowl streak, the Cats had a standout linebacker (or two) every season. From Wesley Woodyard to Braxton Kelley to Micah Johnson to Sam Maxwell to Danny Trevathan, all got at least a cup of coffee in the NFL. Who’s that guy this fall?
PROTECT THE QUARTERBACK
The final three years of UK’s bowl streak, it ranked first, second and second among SEC teams in fewest sacks allowed. The first three seasons under Stoops, the Cats have ranked 14th, 13th and 10th in the same category, surrendering 30-plus sacks every year.
Kentucky finally looks ready to take a major step forward up front with four starters returning, including center Jon Toth (35 consecutive starts) and right guard Ramsey Meyers (24 in a row). But arguably the most important position on the line, left tackle, remains up in the air.
The candidates: junior Cole Mosier, a 6-6, 335-pound former walk-on who has started three games and played in 23; junior Tate Leavitt, a 6-6, 310-pound JUCO transfer who was rated a 4-star recruit; true freshman Landon Young, a 6-7, 305-pound consensus 5-star recruit.
Find one who can protect Barker’s blind side and this offense will take off.
CONTROL GAMES ON THE GROUND
Deep down, Stoops always wanted to – few win in the SEC without it – but predictably, neither of his previous Air Raid offensive coordinators seemed as committed to the ground game. New coordinator (and running backs coach) Eddie Gran finally appears to be on the same page, though, and has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
Senior Jojo Kemp (1,360 career yards, 13 touchdowns), junior Boom Williams (1,341 career yards, 11 touchdowns), junior Mikel Horton (624 career yards, five touchdowns) and sophomore Sihiem King (127 yards on just 11 carries in 2015) give UK one of the deepest backfields in the league.
Williams flirted last fall with becoming the Cats’ first back over 1,000 yards in a season since Rafael Little in 2007 – arguably Kentucky’s best team of the last three decades. In ’09 and ’10, the 1-2 punch of Derrick Lock and Randall Cobb delivered 2,792 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground. That’s a winning formula.
STEAL A GAME ON SPECIAL TEAMS
When you’re trying to grind out six wins as a rebuilding program in a brutal conference, the little things matter. During UK’s bowl steak, it scored seven touchdowns on kickoff or punt returns – at least one in four of the five seasons. The Cats led the SEC in kick return average in 2008.
But in the current five-year streak without a bowl berth? Zero return touchdowns. In fact, special teams have haunted Kentucky the last two seasons. It has given up six return touchdowns while scoring none.
Stoops hopes that putting one coach in charge of special teams – former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Matt House – instead of the recent by-committee approach will tighten up the operation. Having a young burner like King returning kicks could also finally help UK break the big one.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.