When Kentucky football starts spring practice Monday morning, be prepared for this line from coach Mark Stoops and his staff: “Every position is an open competition.”
Perhaps it’s true in theory, but there aren’t too many mysteries for a Wildcats team that returns almost all of its starters from 2017. It’s a safe bet that Benny Snell wins the running back job and Mike Edwards is the starting strong safety when the season kicks off Sept. 1.
Those are obvious, but here are three positions where there will be real competition:
The competition: Terry Wilson vs. Gunnar Hoak
Don’t expect this battle to be won by the end of the Blue-White game on April 13.
Both quarterbacks are unproven at the Division I level, and they took different routes to be in this race.
Wilson, a 4-star prospect coming out of high school in Oklahoma City, spent one year at Oregon before going to junior college in Garden City, Kan., and reopening his recruitment. He signed with Kentucky as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the JUCO ranks, according to the 247Sports composite. Wilson has three years of eligibility remaining.
He passed for 2,113 yards with 26 touchdowns last season at Garden City, but threw 11 interceptions and completed just 58 percent of his passes — a mark worse than Stephen Johnson’s completion percentage as UK’s quarterback last season.
Playing experience is the primary advantage Wilson has over Hoak, but Hoak knows Eddie Gran’s offense. Although he’s never taken a college snap, Hoak has been in Kentucky’s quarterbacks room for two seasons — now going on three as a redshirt sophomore.
The Dublin, Ohio native was a 3-star prospect coming out of high school and the No. 40 pro-style quarterback. He can’t match Wilson’s ability to make plays on the ground, but coaches have been complimentary about his arm. Hoak has performed well in spring games, but that’s about all we’ve seen of him.
If Gran wants to run the same offense Kentucky employed under Johnson, then Wilson makes the most sense. If he wants to air it out like he did at Cincinnati, then Hoak could make a real push to win the job.
This competition is just beginning, so don’t expect a resolution any time soon.
The favorite: Wilson
Starting middle linebacker
The competition: Kash Daniel, Jamin Davis, Boogie Watson
Kentucky’s defense will be boring to follow this spring if you’re looking for big surprises. The Cats return 10 starters with middle linebacker Courtney Love as the only absence. It’s time for Stoops and defensive coordinator Matt House to find new love at middle linebacker.
Daniel, a junior, is the most qualified candidate given that he backed up Love all of last season. Daniel had 19 tackles as a freshman and just 7 last season, a year where the bulk of his work came on special teams.
RELATED: Kentucky linebacker position preview
The Paintsville, Ky., native likely will face competition from Davis, a redshirt freshman, and maybe even first-year freshman Chris Oats — one of the top-ranked signees in Kentucky’s 2018 class. But Davis seems like a more legitimate option given his year advantage over Oats, who isn’t on campus this spring. Davis had a team-high 8 tackles in the 2017 spring game.
Watson is the wild card here. He became a contributor for the Wildcats in his redshirt freshman season as a guy who can play inside or outside at linebacker. Kentucky released its spring media guide Sunday night, and Watson is listed at outside linebacker. Things can change though, and Watson might be needed for depth at either inside position, especially after Eli Brown’s surprise decision to transfer.
The favorite: Daniel
The competition: Max Duffy vs. Grant McKinniss
Who doesn’t love a good punter battle?
For the second year in a row, McKinniss will face off with an Aussie for the starting punter job. McKinniss struggled as Kentucky’s starting punter in his freshman season, and Matt Panton won and kept the job last season as a graduate transfer.
Panton was replaced on the roster by another Australian punter — sophomore Max Duffy. The former Australian rules football player will be 25 years old by the time the season kicks off. He’s the latest in special teams coordinator Dean Hood’s long line of Australian punters.
Stoops wouldn’t have felt the need to sign another scholarship punter if McKinniss was the guy. Duffy was a top punter prospect and he’ll have plenty of time to get acclimated as an early enrollee.
The favorite: Duffy