LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s Blue-White game Friday night will offer the first and last look at the Wildcats for quite some time.
Coach Mark Stoops’ squad made its last public appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl on the last day of 2016, and Kentucky will look to knock down another door, as Stoops likes to say, in 2017. The spring game will offer a first preview.
Here are five things to watch at 7:30 p.m. Friday under the lights.
1. Sihiem King vs. A.J. Rose
It’s the most intriguing position battle of the spring. Either junior Sihiem King or redshirt freshman A.J. Rose will back up sophomore running back Benny Snell come September. As of now, there’s little indication of who’s in the lead.
Both King and Rose will have substantial roles in 2017, but the difference in carries between the No. 2 and No. 3 back was significant last season in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s system. Boom Williams and Snell averaged 14 and 13 carries per game while No. 3 back Jojo Kemp carried 7 times per game.
King’s scatback style could be a complement to Snell’s straight ahead bulldozing, while Rose has a combination of size and speed, according to Gran. King has the experience advantage, but not by an overwhelming amount. He carried 22 times over his first two seasons.
Their spring game performances likely won’t have much, if any, effect on playing time come the fall, but it’ll at least give the first glimpse at Rose in game action.
2. Who steps up on the defensive front?
Derrick LeBlanc is trying to change the mentality of Kentucky’s defensive line — perhaps the position in most need of improvement.
“We’ve got to put the physical back in football,” LeBlanc, in his first year at UK, said earlier this spring. “That’s what I’m trying to do. So, teaching these guys where, they pushed a little high school kid around a year ago, how to fight and play football with men.”
Kentucky returns two of three starters on the line: junior defensive tackle Adrian Middleton and senior nose guard Naquez Pringle. Senior Alvonte Bell will likely start at defensive end, but he’s been out of spring practice with a knee injury.
But a bigger issue for Kentucky is finding depth up front. More will be expected of senior nose guard Matt Elam while inexperienced players like sophomore defensive end T.J. Carter and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kordell Looney will look to secure key rotational roles.
The spring game will offer a good look at what LeBlanc is working with.
3. Stephen Johnson and Gunnar Hoak
Quarterback play will long be the talk of the spring, but there’s little controversy heading into the season. Senior Stephen Johnson is entrenched atop the depth chart after leading the Cats to a 7-win season in 2016.
But there are still things to watch for in Johnson’s play. Primarily, will he show improvement on short to intermediate passes? Johnson mastered the deep ball last season, but accuracy on underneath routes was sometimes lacking. He won’t take any hits during the game, so look for him to create with his legs.
Junior quarterback Drew Barker is likely to be held out as a precaution, so Gunnar Hoak will be the next quarterback to watch. Barker said he’s still not 100 percent, and it’s unclear when he’ll get there. Until then, the redshirt freshman Hoak will be Johnson’s presumptive backup and one to watch on Friday.
Hoak hasn’t played since last season’s spring game, but his role could be an important one in 2017 given the circumstances.
4. O-Line rotation, specifically at center
Offensive line coach John Schlarman can put together a puzzle with pieces that don’t necessarily have to fit. In other words, look for there to be a lot of mixing and matching on the offensive line. Guards can play center, centers can play guards, and even the tackles could be versatile.
Junior Bunchy Stallings is the leading candidate to take over at center in the post-Jon Toth era, but redshirt freshman Drake Jackson could make his case in the rotation. Even look for senior guard Nick Haynes to play some center in the spring game.
The Wildcats lost Toth, but return starters Haynes, Stallings, Kyle Meadows and Cole Mosier on the offensive line. Tackles Landon Young, George Asafo-Adjei and Luke Fortner are likely to play in the two-deep rotation along with guard Logan Stenberg.
The offensive line might be the most loaded position group. It’s just unclear who will play where and how much.
5. What will the Friday night atmosphere be like?
A record crowd of 50,381 was announced at Kentucky’s 2013 Blue-White game — the first in Stoops’ tenure. And while the anticipation won’t match that level, there’s likely to be a curious intrigue for this year’s edition of the spring game.
First, Kentucky is holding it on a Friday night instead of a traditional Saturday afternoon. Second, the Wildcats are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2010.
An estimated 27,000 tickets had been allotted as of Tuesday night, according to a UK spokesperson. The number is close to last year’s announced attendance of 28,441.
It’ll be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like.
Kentucky Blue-White spring game time, details
Date: Friday, April 14
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (parking lots will open at 4 p.m. ET)
Location: Commonwealth Stadium
Weather: 77 degrees
What TV channel is the Kentucky spring game on?
SEC Network will have the broadcast.
Who is calling the Blue-White game for SEC Network?
Taylor Zarzour will handle play-by-play, Chris Doering will be the analyst and Dawn Davenport will be on the sideline.
How can I watch the Blue-White game online?
WatchESPN or on the Watch ESPN mobile app.