The Wildcats rank No. 45 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2017
Kentucky finally ended an extended postseason drought and a second straight bowl invite could be in the offering this fall. Head coach Mark Stoops has the bulk of his offense returning and with improved quarterback play and a more reliable passing game, the Wildcats could be quite dangerous on that side of the ball. The defense is in pretty good shape at linebacker and in the secondary, but question marks abound up front.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Offense for 2017
A year after Kentucky amassed the second-most rushing yards in program history (3,044), the offense figures to be run-heavy once again in 2017 with 2016 Freshman All-American Benny Snell taking over the starting job. With Boom Williams having entered the NFL Draft, it seems unlikely the Wildcats will boast two 1,000-yard rushers again, but junior Sihiem King and redshirt freshman A.J. Rose offer the speed needed to complement Snell’s power running style.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson took complete ownership of the team during spring practice after leading the Wildcats to seven wins in 11 games as the No. 1 quarterback. Former starter Drew Barker is expected to be healthy again by the fall, but it would be a surprise to see anyone other than Johnson start the season opener. Johnson’s ability to improve his ball security (he lost six fumbles in 2016) and intermediate passing game will go a long way to determining if the offense can be more balanced moving forward.
The offensive line could be among the best in the league even after replacing four-year starting center Jon Toth. Several veteran wide receivers return, led by seniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker, but someone will need to step up to replace the big-play threat of Jeff Badet, who transferred to Oklahoma after ranking sixth in the country in yards per catch. The receivers as a whole need more consistency.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Defense for 2017
The secondary leads the way with All-SEC contender Mike Edwards at safety and two-year starters Chris Westry and Derrick Baity at cornerback. Junior weak-side linebacker Jordan Jones was among the most productive defensive players in the league last season with 109 tackles (15.5 tackles for a loss) in his first year as a starter, and coaches believe he has the potential for even more.
Junior outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen should account for much of Kentucky’s pass rush, but if the defense is going to take a significant step forward in 2017 it will need major improvements from the defensive line. After Jimmy Brumbaugh left for Maryland, Stoops turned to former North Texas assistant Derrick LeBlanc to coach the line in hopes a new voice would spark players such as former five-star recruit Matt Elam to better performances this fall. If those veterans don’t step up, several 2017 signees may be asked to contribute immediately.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Specialists for 2017
After battling injuries as a sophomore, former All-SEC kicker Austin MacGinnis returned to form in 2016 and should be among the best in the country as a senior. Kentucky hopes the addition of Columbia University graduate transfer Matthew Panton will push sophomore punter Grant McKinnis, who ranked last in the SEC in yards per punt in 2016. The return game could be more aggressive under new special teams coordinator Dean Hood.
Kentucky ended its six-year bowl drought last season with a bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl, and with the bulk of its offense and defense returning the Wildcats seem poised for a special season by the program’s middling historic standards. If Stephen Johnson can build on the momentum of his outstanding performance in the upset of Louisville in the 2016 regular-season finale, there’s plenty of talent around him for the offense to make up for some of the defense’s deficiencies. If the defense improves as well, the Wildcats could be a dark horse candidate in the SEC East race.