The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 70 Kentucky.
Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2014:
The “Air Raid” didn’t exactly take flight in Year 1 under coordinator Neal Brown. Kentucky ranked 98th in passing offense in 2013 after Brown’s Texas Tech offenses ranked top-10 nationally in each of his three years in Lubbock. Blame a bad roster for some of those struggles — he inherited sparse talent and precious little depth — but Brown is not without regrets.
“What happens when you’re maybe not as talented as some of the teams you’re playing is you try to out-scheme some people and maybe deviate from the system you have in place,” Brown says. “I think we did that. We tried to maybe cover up some areas that were weaknesses for us, where if I had it to do over again I would just really concentrate on fundamentals and stuck with the system and not swayed off it as much.”
He’ll get back to that system — and his usual fast pace — this fall. Improved quarterback play will help. A pair of former four-star recruits, sophomore Patrick Towles and freshman Drew Barker, and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips staged a tight spring competition, with Towles holding a slight edge.
This year’s quarterback will benefit from a stacked backfield — four former four-star recruits, led by sophomore Jojo Kemp and junior Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard — and a veteran offensive line. Four starters return up front, including standout tackles Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle. At receiver, playmakers Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons are back along with the rest of UK’s top five wideouts from 2013.
Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2014:
The defense should take a significant step forward in Year 2. Mark Stoops’ defenses at Arizona and Florida State did, and the Cats return eight starters plus add several talented newcomers. Few SEC teams will have a more formidable pair of defensive ends than 6'6", 264-pound Za’Darius Smith and 6'4", 267-pound Bud Dupree, who combined for 13 sacks last season.
Kentucky’s biggest loss is at middle linebacker, where Avery Williamson had 100-plus tackles each of the last two seasons and was a locker room leader. Junior Josh Forrest, a long, athletic former receiver and defensive back, will battle junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan for that job.
The most important area of improvement is the secondary. UK’s defensive backs intercepted just one pass last season and ranked 117th in passes defended. But they’ll get a boost at safety from junior college transfer A.J. Stamps and at corner from J.D. Harmon, who led the team in interceptions in 2012 but was academically ineligible last fall. Four freshman defensive backs — three of them four-star recruits — will also significantly upgrade the talent.
Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2014:
The Cats have a new special teams coordinator in Craig Naivar, a high-energy guy who blasts 1980s hair metal before meetings. They also have junior punter Landon Foster back in freshman form. He had 22 punts of 50-plus yards that year but just seven such bombs in 2013 thanks to a nagging quadriceps injury. He’s healthy now and averaged 45.6 yards on eight punts in the spring game. The new field-goal kicker is redshirt freshman Austin MacGinnis, a former top-three recruit nationally at his position.
Stoops has done the impossible — keep fans and recruits excited after a 2–10 debut season. He signed a top-25 class and had 35,000 people show up for this year’s spring game, second-most in program history. Now he just needs to win. Although he posted exactly the same record that got Joker Phillips fired a year earlier, the Cats were more competitive in 2013, losing five games by two touchdowns or less and three by single digits. The big payoff is probably still a year away, but a four- or five-win season this fall would probably keep everyone happy.