There was tangible growth for Kentucky in Mark Stoops second season in Lexington. Despite a disappointing second half that still left the Wildcats at home during bowl season, Stoops was able to build a more competitive team. The Cats won two SEC games last fall and if it can improve by just one game, a postseason berth is very possible in 2015.
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Previewing Kentucky’s Offense for 2015:
When coordinator Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy after last season, Mark Stoops wanted to maintain continuity, so he grabbed another branch from the “Air Raid” coaching tree that began blooming at UK in the late 1990s with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Stoops hired West Virginia OC Shannon Dawson, who spent four years under Dana Holgorsen.
In his first spring at Kentucky, Dawson earned praise for his work with quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and for the balance and creativity of his attack. It produced five touchdowns in the Cats’ final scrimmage of the spring.
Dawson has two prototypical prospects — and former four-star recruits — to choose from at QB. Towles (6'5", 241) and Barker (6'3", 221) battled to a near draw in spring, but as a junior who started every game and produced more than 3,000 total yards last fall, Towles has the edge in experience.
There’s more talent around the QBs than any point in recent memory. Sophomore tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams had 1,159 all-purpose yards last season, including three touchdown runs of 50-plus yards. His backup is Jojo Kemp, who had 131 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina last season.
Junior wideout Ryan Timmons (874 career yards) is joined by a quartet of sophomore receivers — big targets Blake Bone and Dorian Baker and breakaway threats Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet — plus true freshman tight end C.J. Conrad, an early enrollee who looked like a legitimate threat this spring.
Four starters are back on an offensive line that is the deepest and most physically imposing of Stoops’ three-year tenure.
Previewing Kentucky’s Defense for 2015:
Replacing star ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith won’t be easy, but Kentucky has upgraded its talent elsewhere. Senior nose tackle Melvin Lewis, a 6'4", 342-pound former junior college transfer, will anchor the line, and Stoops expects a breakout year from linebacker Ryan Flannigan, another transfer in his second season with the Wildcats.
Former four-star recruit Jason Hatcher, a junior who waited his turn behind Dupree, is ready for prime time at outside linebacker in what has morphed into a full-time 3-4 defense.
Senior free safety A.J. Stamps is back after a strong debut season at Kentucky in which he intercepted a team-high four passes. He’ll lead a group that includes versatile veterans Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and Kendall Randolph.
Stoops remains concerned about his corners, but at least he has experienced options there. Seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller have 47 starts and 29 pass breakups between them. But there’s room for a newcomer to break into the lineup.
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Previewing Kentucky’s Specialists for 2015:
The Cats boast two of the most reliable legs in the SEC in senior punter Landon Foster and sophomore placekicker Austin MacGinnis. Foster averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season, including a career-best 60-yarder. MacGinnis earned Freshman All-America honors.
This is a critical season for Stoops and Kentucky. The administration has given him the resources — huge raises for him and his staff, a $120 million stadium renovation that opens this fall and a $45 million practice facility under construction — and Year 3 is time to deliver results.
The positive vibes of a 5–1 start last fall vanished with the Wildcats’ 0–6 finish. But after three straight top-40 recruiting classes and three springs and summers to develop that talent, Stoops is confident the tide is turning. “Significantly better right now,” he says. “I think it’s hard to put into words exactly. I definitely feel like we’re developing them to be a winning football team.”