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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Mark Stoops, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Neal Brown | DEF. COORDINATOR: D.J. Eliot
New coordinator Neal Brown is bringing back the “Air Raid” attack, which he learned in Lexington under Hal Mumme in the late 1990s and made his own at Texas Tech the last three years. The Red Raiders ranked in the top seven nationally in passing yards each season Brown was at the controls. He plans to spread out SEC defenses, turn up the tempo and frequently sound the sirens at Commonwealth Stadium — which will wail, as they did in the Mumme era, after every touchdown. First, he’ll have to pick a trigger man.
Coaches were mostly mum on the three-way quarterback battle throughout spring and said the competition could go deep into preseason camp. All three sophomore contenders bring something to the table. Maxwell Smith completed 68.7 percent of his passes and averaged 322 yards through three games last fall before a season-ending ankle injury. Jalen Whitlow, who started UK’s final seven games, is a dangerous dual-threat and shined brightest in the Spring Game, completing 17-of-28 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns and rushing seven times for 49 yards. Patrick Towles is the physical prototype and entered with the most recruiting hype, but he’s been inconsistent.
UK must replace a three-year starter at center and an All-American at right guard. The Wildcats have weapons at wideout in Demarco Robinson and A.J. Legree but will likely have to rely on true freshmen, like the dynamic Ryan Timmons, to fill out their thin receiving corps. A stable of tailbacks, led by speedy Raymond Sanders and a finally healthy Josh Clemons, will be useful.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart said defense was a priority in hiring the replacement for former head coach Joker Phillips. By that measure, poaching Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops was an overwhelming success. Even better that he brought along defensive line coach D.J. Eliot to coordinate the Cats’ D. The Seminoles ranked 108th in yards allowed the year before Stoops arrived. They ranked fourth in 2011, second in 2012. The Wildcats, with less talent, are an even bigger project.
Scrapping the 3-4 that never seemed to take and going back to a 4-3 should help. So should moving the most talented veteran, 6'4", 254-pound Bud Dupree, back from linebacker to end and adding the nation’s top junior college end, Za’Darius Smith. Both dominated spring practice and figure to revamp a pass rush that ranked 10th or worse in the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss the last three seasons.
At linebacker, senior Avery Williamson can be a leader, and sophomore Khalid Henderson could become a star. But the secondary, outside of hard-hitting safety Ashely Lowery, is shaky at best. Stoops said all spring the team needed help there.
Landon Foster ranked fifth nationally among freshmen last season with a 42.9-yard punting average and had 22 kicks of 50-plus yards. The Cats are looking for a field goal kicker, though, and it could be incoming freshman Austin MacGinnis, rated No. 3 in the country by Rivals. Senior kickoff specialist Joe Mansour has a big leg but erratic accuracy. Robinson (punts) and DeMarcus Sweat (kickoffs) are UK’s most dangerous return guys.
Stoops has made all the right moves. He’s reinvigorated the fan base (season ticket sales are way up), signed the program’s highest-rated recruiting class in at least a dozen years, vowed to fix the defense and installed a (theoretically) high-powered offense. But he knows the roster, which got the last guy fired, leaves a lot to be desired. There’s also the matter of the schedule, which at one point features Louisville, Florida, at South Carolina, Alabama all in a row. Anything above five wins would constitute magic.
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