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Regions Bank 2014 SEC Football Spring Preview: Kentucky

May 5, 2014

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By Tony Barnhart
Mr. College Football

When you’re building a program that has been down for a while, you have to look for signs of improvement that go beyond wins and losses. As Mark Stoops closed the book on his second spring practice at Kentucky, those signs were everywhere.

After drawing a crowd of over 35,000 for last Saturday’s spring game in Lexington, Stoops was very upbeat when we talked by phone on Thursday.

“I can’t put into words how far we’ve come in just a year,” said Stoops, whose first Kentucky team went 2-10 and did not win an SEC game. “This time last year there were all these unknowns. We didn’t know what our players were capable of doing. We struggled just to line up and run basic plays.

“Now we are so much more efficient. We tried to install a culture here and after a year we think we are well on the way to doing that. I feel very good about where we are.”

On the field last season, Kentucky had a couple of moments to give fans a reason to believe things are going to get better sooner rather than later:

**--The Wildcats went on the road to South Carolina and fell behind 21-0. But Kentucky fought back, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter before losing 35-28.

**--Kentucky went to Mississippi State and fell behind 21-7 in the first half. Again the Wildcats fought back and had a chance to win the game. But a drive stalled at the Mississippi State 29-yard line with 21 seconds left and the Bulldogs won 26-22.

“What we saw last year was a team with a lot of fight,” said Stoops. “If you don’t play with great desire and great passion you are not going to survive in the SEC. We did that.  We’ve got a group of players who are tired of the way things have been going for us and they’re determined to do something about it.

“The reality is that last year we weren’t good enough to win very many games at this level. This year we’re going to do things better.”

There are very tangible reasons to believe that Kentucky will be a significantly improved football team in 2014:

Let’s start with the players returning. A total of 51 lettermen are back and in that group there are 39 who have started at least one game Kentucky.

The anticipated return of Kentucky’s “Air Raid” offense under coordinator Neal Brown never got off the ground in 2013. The Wildcats averaged only 20.5 points per game (13th in the SEC) and threw for only 193.4 yards per game (10th). Still, there is reason for optimism.

Stoops and Brown came out of spring practice with three quarterbacks in the mix: sophomore Patrick Towles, incoming freshman Drew Barker and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips. Junior Maxwell Smith, who has started 11 games for Kentucky, sat out the spring after shoulder surgery. Towles, who redshirted last season after being pressed into service as a true freshman in 2012, began the spring game with the first offense.

Stoops indicated to me on Thursday that he will let the competition at the position continue on into the summer.

“We want to name a quarterback in time to get him enough reps and get the timing with the receivers sharp for the first game (with UT-Martin on Aug. 30),” said Stoops. “But I don’t feel a sense of urgency to name a starter right now. We need to let things play out a little more.”

Here is another sign that the overall talent is getting better at Kentucky. The quarterback position is now so deep that Jalen Whitlow, who started 15 games at quarterback over the past two seasons, was asked to move to wide receiver because that’s a position where the Wildcats really need some playmakers. Whitlow decided to transfer.

Kentucky’s backs ran for 308 yards in the spring game against a very vanilla defense but this will be the deepest the Wildcats have been at the position in years. Sophomore JoJo Kemp played with bone spurs in his ankle for all of the 2013 season but still ran for 482 yards. The ankle has been cleaned out and Kemp ran for 90 yards in the spring game.  Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard had 55 yards in seven carries in the spring game.

If you’re looking for somebody to pull for this season, try junior Josh Clemons. He was Kentucky’s leading rusher at the mid-point of the 2011 season before suffering a knee injury. He did not recover in time and missed the entire 2012 season. He was ready to return in 2013 when he suffered an Achilles Heel injury in July workouts and missed his second consecutive season. Clemons had had 93 yards in the spring game last Saturday.

“We are all pulling for Josh. He looked good,” said Stoops.

Early enrollee Mikel Horton (6-1, 236), who had 70 yards in the spring game, is trying to play his way into the rotation.

Kentucky has four receivers returning who caught 20 or more passes last season but there is some work to be done there. Demarco Robinson was one of those guys and had a good spring game with eight catches for 115 yards. But Robinson has had some off-the-field issues having been suspended for the last two games in 2013. He had another run-in with the authorities in January. Whether or not this could impact his senior season remains to be seen.

Four of five starters return on the offensive line.

Defensively, Kentucky will build around two very good guys on the edge, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, who were both named to one of the All-SEC teams last season. The Wildcats return eight starters but the three players they lost were very good: tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph plus the best player from 2013, linebacker Avery Williamson, a second-team pick on the coaches All-SEC team.

“We are going to really miss Avery,” said Stoops. “He did a lot of things for us.”

The schedule includes non-conference games with UT-Martin, Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe in Lexington. There is a trip to Louisville, now a member of the ACC, in November. The SEC schedule includes Mississippi State and LSU (at Baton Rouge) from the West Division. There are SEC road games at Florida, LSU, Missouri, and Tennessee. It’s tough.

“Yep. The SEC was everything I thought it would be,” said Stoops.

Regardless of how many games the Wildcats win in 2014, here are three more signs that the future appears bright for Stoops in Lexington:

**--After a 2-10 season Kentucky’s coaching staff was able to sign the No. 17-ranked recruiting class in the country according to Rivals.com. Using Stoops’s Ohio contacts (he’s from Youngstown), Kentucky signed 11 players out of the Buckeye state.

**--Kentucky has begun a $110 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium that should be ready for the 2015 season.

**--Kentucky has also committed to building a $45 million football office and practice complex that will be ready in 2016.

“The commitment here has been incredible,” said Stoops. “Not only are we building first class facilities, our administration is giving me the opportunity to hire and retain the best coaches we can find. Our fan base stuck with us after a tough first season and has been very supportive. I think everybody knows that the time is right to build this program. Everyone is committed and on the same page.”

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