Mark Stoops is entering his eighth season with the Kentucky Wildcats, which makes him the longest-tenured head coach in Lexington since Jerry Claiborne led the program in the '80s.
Although the Wildcats didn't reach the AP Top 25 following a 10-3 2018 season, last year was still a success with an 8-5 record — Stoops' second-best mark ever — and a Belk Bowl win.
Now Stoops is hoping to lead another strong campaign in 2020, and he'll have to do it without perhaps his best player since coming to the SEC. First-team All-American and do-it-all offensive weapon Lynn Bowden Jr. is off to the NFL, leaving behind an interesting roster with hopes of competing in a tougher-than usual SEC East.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kentucky's Spring Practice
1. Terry Wilson's health
Before Lynn Bowden Jr. emerged as a devastating option at quarterback last season, Wilson was the unquestioned starter. He was solid in his first season after transferring from junior college, throwing for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018 but last season he played in just two games before suffering a devastating knee injury. Wilson will not participate in spring practice, but it's worth monitoring his throwing and what the coaches say about his health.
In his absence, Sawyer Smith is expected to see the bulk of the first-team reps this spring. The rising senior completed just 57-of-127 passes (45.2 percent) last year with more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4). He will need to show great improvement to challenge a healthy Wilson for the starting job in the fall. This is his chance to shine. But he won't be the only getting a chance this spring. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood is waiting to hear back from the NCAA on his waiver to see if he will be eligible this fall but he figures to get his chances to impress this spring as well.
2. Replacing Bowden
Not only was Bowden a star at quarterback, but he was also the Wildcats' leading rusher and receiver. Kentucky has a healthy amount of depth at running back with Asim Rose and Kavosiey Smoke, both of whom averaged better than 5.5 yards per carry last year. Either has a chance to take over as the top back in a timeshare.
More pressing is the need for someone to emerge at wide receiver. Bowden led all Wildcats with 348 receiving yards, and the next player on the list (Ahmad Wagner, 254), also is gone. The team doesn't have a big deep threat anymore, and only three returning receivers even caught 10 passes last year. Keep an eye on Isaiah Epps, who missed all of last season with a foot injury but could crack the starting lineup.
3. Getting to know the early enrollees
More than half of Kentucky's recruiting class is enrolling early this semester, which will give each player a leg up on earning playing time in the fall and allows coaches and fans to get an up-close and personal look at them. Perhaps the most visible new faces will be quarterbacks Beau Allen and the aforementioned Gatewood. Allen played at nearby Lexington Catholic and was the No. 18 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class, according to 247Sports. Gatewood is a former top-50 recruit himself.
Other notable names to watch will include outside linebacker Sam Anaele and defensive back Joel Williams. Both are four-star prospects and could push for playing time despite most of the linebackers and secondary returning. Running back JuTahn McLain and wideout Kalil Branham should also have the opportunity to contribute if they shine in the spring.
4. Who will step up in the trenches?
Kentucky has to replace All-SEC offensive guard Logan Stenberg as well as two of their three starting defensive linemen, and there aren't any clear successors yet. Guards Quintin Wilson and Kenneth Horsey plus tackle Naasir Watkins are most likely to step up on the O-line, as the top newcomers are better fits on the outside. Meanwhile, last year's backup defensive linemen Marquan McCall and Kordell Looney are candidates to take on bigger roles, although true freshman Octavious Oxendine could force his way into the starting lineup.
5. Continued development for Yusuf Corker
Coaches were pleasantly surprised last season when Corker emerged as the team's top defensive back. The first-time starter led the team with 74 tackles, and now Stoops and defensive coordinator Brad White will ask Corker to take on an even bigger role. Corker wasn't didn't create many chaos plays (0.5 TFLs, interception, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 pass breakups), and an increase in that department would be a boon to the defense and could improve his NFL draft stock.
Corker isn't the only one to keep an eye in the secondary this spring. After sitting out last season, LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph is eligible. He played in 11 games for the Tigers as a true freshman and will be in the mix at cornerback.