After another hot start under Stoops, Kentucky finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl appearance. The Wildcats hope to take the next step for the program in 2016 as quarterback Drew Barker must lead the charge. The offense won’t miss a beat this year with returning the most starters in the SEC on that side of the ball. The defense on the other hand must make strides under coordinator D.J. Eliot to keep the momentum going for a full season.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing Kentucky’s Offense
Kentucky will play with its third different offensive coordinator in three seasons this fall, but the arrival of new co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw from Cincinnati has led to renewed optimism about the direction of the offense after one season of struggles with Shannon Dawson at the helm. The new UK assistants inherit a strong nucleus of young talent with nine of the 11 starters from the 2015 season finale back on campus. Former quarterback Patrick Towles, who transferred to Boston College after losing the starting job to Drew Barker, was the only player who recorded a carry or catch last season not to return this spring.
Barker is the odds-on favorite to start at quarterback this fall after completing 35-of-70 passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in five games, including two starts, in his debut season. He is joined by a three-headed rushing attack featuring junior All-SEC contender Boom Williams, senior Jojo Kemp and sophomore Mikel Horton. Tight end C.J. Conrad figures to take on a larger role after earning SEC All-Freshman honors in 2015.
Senior center Jon Toth anchors an offensive line that returns four of five starters but needs to improve in obvious passing situations after ranking 85th nationally in sacks allowed (30) last season.
Previewing Kentucky’s Defense
Kentucky’s defense boasts little of the returning experience the offense will lean on this fall.
The Wildcats return just one full-time starter in the front seven, and the returning defensive linemen and linebackers accounted for just 2.5 sacks last season. Following the offseason dismissal of senior outside linebacker Jason Hatcher, sophomores Denzil Ware and Josh Allen will need to take on much of the pass-rushing burden.
A pair of FBS transfers — middle linebacker Courtney Love from Nebraska and outside linebacker De’Niro Laster from Minnesota — could be key in replacing some of the lost production from 2015. Love has been hailed as the defense’s new leader and will be particularly important in leading the way for an inside linebacker group that has almost no returning experience. But Love totaled just six tackles in 12 games as a redshirt freshman at Nebraska in 2014.
The strength of the defense is the secondary, where the Wildcats return almost the entire two-deep, led by SEC All-Freshman corner Chris Westry. Seniors Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and J.D. Harmon should add a veteran presence to support what could be four sophomore starters.
Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists
Kicking was a significant problem for Kentucky in 2015, with former All-SEC place kicker Austin MacGinnis battling a nagging groin injury and senior punter Landon Foster posting the worst season of his career. Foster, who was otherwise steady in four years as the No. 1 punter, graduated, but MacGinnis returns and reported being back to 100 percent this spring. Freshman punter Grant McKinniss, who was rated as a four-star recruit by Scout, will need to make an immediate impact. UK’s return game has added little excitement in the Stoops era, but Sihiem King showed potential on kickoffs.
Gran’s Cincinnati offense posted video-game numbers, ranking sixth nationally in passing yards (359.9) and total yards (537.8) per game. Kentucky may need its offense to find similar success to make up for massive turnover on defense. After back-to-back 5–7 seasons that featured second-half collapses, the Wildcats have all eyes set on reaching their first bowl game since 2010. The schedule is never easy in the SEC, but home games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State combined with the returning talent on offense offer hope Stoops can reach his first bowl game this fall.