2015 CFB Preview – Kentucky

    Kentucky WildcatsGo to Team Page WildcatsGo to Selection Page           It’s not quite as bad as going 38-0 and gacking away a

    July 1, 2015

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    It’s not quite as bad as going 38-0 and gacking away a shot at immortality in the Final Four, but the 2014 Kentucky football season was just cruel.

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, UK is a hoops school, but head football coach Mark Stoops is starting to change that up a little bit with some tremendous recruiting classes and plenty of promise in his short time at the job. It’s hard to make a massive dent right away in the SEC after so many years of being an also-ran, but he and his team had it.

    They had their chance at a bowl game and at least a six-win season for the first time since 2010, and they couldn’t close.

    They had chance, after chance, after chance, after chance, after chance, after chance, starting out the season 5-1 with the only blip a controversial heartbreaking loss to Florida, but the Wildcats weren’t able to come up with a win in any of their last six games. To be fair, the schedule got tough, but the worst part about the losing streak was that the Cats weren’t really even close until the end.

    They came up with a great effort against a then-unbeaten Mississippi State team, but they still lost by 14. They gave a solid fight in the 44-40 loss to Louisville, but the other five losses were by double digits with too many ugly blowouts along the way.

    Consider it a motivational/teachable moment. There won’t be any problems getting the team to do the extra work needed to try making the program a real, live player in the SEC.

    It’s not like Kentucky has been totally miserable at football, but there hasn’t been any sustainable success and there haven’t been enough big, splashy seasons. The last nine-win campaign was in 1984, and that was followed up by four straight seasons without a winning record.

    But Stoops is generating a stir, and the fan base has shown that there’s room in their hearts for the prolate spheroid-shaped ball as well as the round one.

    The talent level is building, the depth is getting to a better level, and Kentucky is really and truly making the move into relevance.

    But getting to a bowl game again would be a nice next move. And then the program can take on Alabama, and Florida, and Georgia, and LSU, and Auburn, and …

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: Can the offense start to come up with more big moments on a consistent basis? The Wildcats never seemed able to come up with the same game twice in a row over the second half of the season, but there’s enough experience returning to hope for more. Patrick Towles should be a good leader, if Drew Barker doesn’t take over the quarterback gig. There’s a good stable of running backs to work with and a promising receiving corps, but the O line has to be stronger and has to provide more of a push.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: After allowing 157 points in the last three games, and giving up 36 points or more in seven of the last ten games, there’s lots of work to do. Who’ll come up with the pass rush now that Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are gone? It’s a big line, but it’ll have to manufacture pressure. The linebacking corps should be terrific at times around Josh Forrest in the middle, while the secondary has a few good playmakers in S A.J. Stamps and hybrid Blake McClain. Will that mean more third down stops? Will that all end up with stronger production against the run?

    What to watch for on offense: Is it possible Kentucky can come up with any sort of a running game that works on a regular basis? The Wildcats ran for 2,061 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2010. Also in 2010, they won six games and got to a bowl game. In 2009, they ran for 2,486 yards and 26 scores – seven wins, bowl game. They’ve failed to win six games and haven’t gone bowling over the last four seasons, and over that time they’ve also failed to hit the 2,000-yard mark on the ground. Last year, though, was the best effort in the four seasons rumbling for 1,838 yards and 21 scores. However, most of the production came in the five wins over the first half of the season. There were moments when everything worked, but there weren’t enough of them. There’s more than enough talent in the backfield to do far more.

    What to watch for on defense: Who’s going to replace the NFL stars? Bud Dupree was a pass rising terror as a hybrid linebacker/end, but now he’s busy being a Pittsburgh Steeler. Za’Darius Smith was a playmaker on the other side, but he’s getting paid by the Baltimore Ravens. The Wildcats as a team were okay at getting to the quarterback, but they have to be a whole bunch better and they have to do it without their two top options. The pressure has to be manufactured from several different spots, including linebacker, but it would be nice if Jason Hatcher, Jabari Johnson and/or Farrington Huguenin could become bigger factors.

    The team will be far better if … the offense could convert a third down play. There weren’t any problems over the first five games of the season, hitting on 40% of the third down chances in four of the games and not doing a horrible job against Florida, and then came a sign of things to come converting just one of 12 chances in the win over ULM. The offense couldn’t move the chains a like against Missouri – going 2-of-16 – and sputtered in the four-point loss to Louisville – hitting 3-of-16 tries – finishing up the season with a paltry 34% third down conversion rate. By comparison, in the last bowl season of 2010, UK converted 44% of the time. Better running game = easier third down chances.

    The schedule: Kentucky should be far better, but the start of the season might not be a breeze. Louisiana should be one of the best teams in the Sun Belt, and going forward at South Carolina and following it up with Florida and Missouri will be tough.
    – However, the Florida and Missouri games are at home, as it the date against Auburn from the West.
    – Charlotte and Eastern Kentucky shouldn’t be a problem in non-conference play, and the showdown against Louisville comes in the regular season finale. Considering the SEC finish comes at Vanderbilt, there’s a chance to go on a nice run to end the year.
    – The middle of the season is about the road, going away for three games in four weeks making trips to Mississippi State, Georgia and Vanderbilt. The home game is Tennessee.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … The trip to Vanderbilt. The Commodores should be better, and they’ll be far more experienced. Coming off the road game at Georgia, the Wildcats can’t ease up.

    Best offensive player: Junior QB Patrick Towles. Yes, there’s technically a quarterback battle going on between Towles and Drew Barker – who actually might be just good enough to take the gig – but can the coaching staff go away from the guy who spent last year getting an invaluable year of SEC experience. Towles very big, very mobile, and very talented, but he also failed to throw a touchdown pass in his final two games and, outside of the magical performance against Mississippi State – where he looked like Patrick Football running around making plays – he was just okay over the second half of the season. Even so, if he’s not the guy, then Barker is doing something really right in practices.

    Best defensive player: Senior LB Josh Forrest. (Warning: miserably awful line coming up) The team’s leading tackler and best all-around defensive playmaker came up with a tremendous season in the middle of the linebacking corps, but it’s hard to get much all-star recognition in the loaded SEC. The voters couldn’t see the Forrest for the trees – dreadfully, dreadfully sorry – as he got all over the field against the run and did a nice job behind the line. He’ll receive more recognition now that he’s the main man of the D – now that Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are gone – and the leader of an improved group.

    Key player to a successful season: Junior LB/DE Jason Hatcher. DE Farrington Huguenin and/or defensive tackles Cory Johnson and Melvin Lewis have to help the cause, but someone has to get to the quarterback. Any pressure and any hits on the quarterback from Huguenin, Johnson or Lewis will be a plus, but the defense has to find an option to make offenses worry. Hatcher has the athleticism and upside to be that guy.

    The season will be a success if … Kentucky gets that sixth win. It would be nice if the Wildcats could make a huge splash, and it would be great if it could come up with some big upsets, but after last year, just get win No. 6 and go bowling. With five homes games in the first six, and with Louisiana, Eastern Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Charlotte guaranteeing four wins, get it done.

    Key game: Sept. 19 vs. Florida. 28 in a row. Kentucky might have been achingly close to pulling it off last year, but you don’t mess with a streak that’s gone back to 1986, losing 28 straight to Florida and 34 of the last 35, there’s no better way to show that things have changed with a big victory to end a long, long run of pain and anguish.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Fumbles: Opponents 25 (lost 8) – Kentucky 20 (lost 4)
    – Kentucky 1st Quarter Scoring: 57 – Kentucky 2nd Quarter Scoring: 129
    – Third Down Conversions: Opponents 79-of-181 (44%) – Kentucky 62-of-183 (34%)

    Players You Need To Know

    1. LB Josh Forrest, Sr.
    The team’s leading tackler, Forrest came up with 110 stops on the season from his spot in the middle, to go along with two picks taking one for a touchdown. He went from being a non-descript special teamer and backup to a terrific all-around playmaker using his 6-3, 233-pound size, smarts and range to come up with play after play, game after game. A high school sprinter, he has the athleticism to always be around the ball, making 20 tackles against Tennessee, 15 against South Carolina, and ten in three other games. Able to play inside or out, he’s going to stick in the middle where he’ll once again be a statistical star.

    2. QB Patrick Towles, Jr.
    While he’ll have to beat out Drew Barker, the 6-5, 238-pound junior should have job back with experience, the size, the arm, and the skills to be the leader of the attack. The former Kentucky Mr. Football and Parade All-American led his high school team to three straight state titles, but this year he has to be more consistent in SEC play. A true pro-style bomber who can run a bit when needed, he has the right look and the gun for an arm completing 57% of his passes for 2,718 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine picks, while running for 303 yards and six scores. The hope was to not play him as a freshman, but he got forced into the mix when the options started to dwindle. Now he’s seasoned and he should be ready to do even more, but he still has to prove that he can be the guy who almost beat Mississippi State by himself, throwing for 390 yards and two touchdowns and running for 76 yards and two scores. He’s good, but this year he has to be great – if he can grab the job.

    3. S Blake McClain, Jr.
    After coming to the program as a corner, he became a nickelback and has been one of the team’s steadiest players and best defenders despite stepping in from Day One as a true freshman. In 2014 he tied for third on the team with 59 tackles with a sack and five broken up passes, but last year he only made 28 tackles with two sacks and six broken up passes. At 5-11 and 194 pounds, he has decent size, is technically sound, and has 4.5 speed – now he has to do more. He still has yet to pick off a pass and has to be a more disruptive force in all areas if he can stay in one piece. He’ll pop, but in the nickel spot he has to be a threat when the ball is in the air.

    4. S A.J. Stamps, Sr.
    Fifth on the team in tackles, the 6-0, 199-pound former JUCO transfer came up with 56 tackles with four picks and five broken up passes doing a little bit of everything for the secondary. He’s built like a free safety, and he has that sort of range coming in from East Mississippi CC with excellent athleticism and speed. Good at attacking the ball, he’s just as dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands on the move. Be shocked if he’s not even more of a statistical star.

    5. RB Stanley Williams, Soph.
    The team’s leading rusher despite missing a few games, Williams stepped up as a true freshman tearing off 486 yards and five scores averaging close to seven yards per pop. He saved his best for last with 126 yards and two touchdowns against Louisville, but throughout the year, “Boom” showed off good hands as a receiver to go along with great quickness and speed out of the backfield. The 5-9, 196-pounder isn’t a workhorse, but he’s a do-it-all weapon who’ll get the ball in a variety of ways.

    6. PK Austin MacGinnis, Soph.
    One of the team’s best offensive producers, he came through with a great redshirt freshman season nailing 21-of-26 field goals connecting on his last nine attempts and 12 of his last 13. The range is there, crushing a 54-yarder in the loss to Tennessee and a 53-yard bomb against Ohio, but it took him a little while to find his consistency. He’ll get even more work from beyond 40 this year.

    7. WR Ryan Timmons, Jr.
    The 5-10, 201-pound blazer might not have been a regular starter, but that didn’t really matter. Lightning fast, the Kentucky state champion track star in both the 100 and 200-meter dashes showed off his big play ability throughout last year leading the team with 45 catches for 536 yards and two scores. Now he needs to be loose in the open field on a more regular basis after coming up with just one 100-yard day, catching five passes for 114 yards against Mississippi State. He can do far more.

    8. DT Melvin Lewis, Sr.
    The 6-4, 342-pound former JUCO transfer was an interior pass rushing terror at the lower level with great athleticism and toughness for his size. However, he has to keep his weight in check – he needs to be around 320 pounds – and he has to be even tougher against the run. While he came up with 37 tackles last season, he didn’t do much in the backfield and didn’t build off a great midseason stretch making nine tackles against LSU and seven against Mississippi State.

    9. LB Ryan Flannigan, Sr.
    The team’s fourth-leading tackler, Flannigan made 57 tackles closing out with a flourish making 12 stops against Tennessee and 11 against Louisville from his spot on the weakside. The 6-2, 220-pound former JUCO transfer is a pure hitter who moves like a big, beefed up safety. A dream of a weakside defender, he has the upside and potential to be a factor for the pass defense and be used more as a pass rusher. At the very least, 75 stops aren’t out of the question.

    10. QB Drew Barker, RFr.
    Can he really push Patrick Towles out of a starting quarterback job? He’s been good enough this offseason to make it a fight and give the coaches something to work on. At 6-3 and 221 pounds, he has the right size to go along with the right resume, throwing for a ridiculous 6,264 career yards in high school with 62 touchdowns. However, he’s not just a stick-in-the-mud pocket passer rushing for close to 4,000 yards with 51 touchdowns. There’s enough to his game to consider building around him if Towles isn’t fantastic.

    Head Coach: Mark Stoops
    2nd year: 7-17
    Sept. 5 Louisiana
    Sept. 12 at South Carolina
    Sept. 19 Florida
    Sept. 26 Missouri
    Oct. 3 Eastern Kentucky
    Oct. 10 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 15 Auburn
    Oct. 24 at Miss State
    Oct. 31 Tennessee
    Nov. 7 at Georgia
    Nov. 14 at Vanderbilt
    Nov. 21 Charlotte
    Nov. 28 Louisville
    Ten Best Kentucky Players
    1. LB Josh Forrest, Sr.
    2. QB Patrick Towles, Jr.
    3. S Blake McClain, Jr.
    4. S A.J. Stamps, Sr.
    5. RB Stanley Williams, Soph.
    6. PK Austin MacGinnis, Soph.
    7. WR Ryan Timmons, Jr.
    8. DT Melvin Lewis, Sr.
    9. LB Ryan Flannigan, Sr.
    10. QB Drew Barker, RFr.


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