Following the program's best season in more than 40 years, it is a time of transition for Kentucky.
Gone are National Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen, all-time leading rusher Benny Snell and 12 other starters from the 10-win Citrus Bowl champion squad. Improvements in the passing game and from several young defenders will be needed to carry the program’s momentum into another bowl season.
RELATED: Kentucky Football Schedule 2019
The good news for Kentucky fans is that there is young talent returning at several key positions and a nucleus of veteran leadership from former U.S. Army All-American recruits Kash Daniel, Landon Young and Drake Jackson, now in their fourth year on campus.
Previewing Kentucky's Offense for 2019
With Snell gone, Kentucky will aim for a more balanced offensive attack in 2019. In order to accomplish that goal, the Wildcats will need improvement from quarterback Terry Wilson, who ranked 14th in the SEC in passing yards per game last season (145), and a wide receiver group lacking consistent playmakers outside of do-everything slot receiver Lynn Bowden Jr.
"I think you are going to see a jump across the board with our wide receiver play," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops says. "We have challenged those guys. But, Lynn coming back going into his junior year... growth, you want to see that. We would like to get him the ball more, and I believe we will. But, you also need other guys to step up."
Even if the passing game improves, do not expect Kentucky to completely abandon the power-rushing attack that found so much success over the past three seasons. Instead of relying on one powerhouse back like Snell, Kentucky is expected to split carries among three or four backs, led by junior Asim "A.J." Rose, who averaged 6.2 yards per carry as Snell’s backup last season.
The offensive line lost three starters, including All-American Bunchy Stallings, but will be boosted by the return of Young, a former five-star recruit and starter at left tackle, from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2018 season.
Previewing Kentucky's Defense for 2019
Kentucky must replace seven starters from one of the best defenses in program history, including the entire secondary. It seems inevitable that the Wildcats will take a step back after ranking sixth nationally in points allowed per game (16.8), but there is enough returning experience up the middle at the interior defensive line positions, inside linebacker and safety for Stoops and new coordinator Brad White to hope that there won’t be a total collapse on that side of the ball.
Nose guard Quinton Bohanna will anchor a defensive line that returns most of its key contributors and will receive a boost from the addition of defensive end Josh Paschal, who missed most of the 2018 season while recovering from a malignant melanoma on his foot. Daniel, a team captain, will be the face of the defense at middle linebacker. The senior will receive help from promising sophomore linebackers Chris Oats and DeAndre Square.
"When you've got guys inside [on the line] that are hunting, good things happen," White says. "We've got that right now. We've talked about we need to be strong down the middle, and we've been strong down the middle both in the run game and in the pass game."
To replace Allen and the secondary, Kentucky will need help from its 2019 signing class, which included six defensive backs and five outside linebackers. Safeties Davonte Robinson and Jordan Griffin should slide into starting roles after serving two years as key backups, but junior college transfers Brandin Echols and Quandre Mosely will be needed for early contributions at cornerback, where there is no returning experience of note.
Four-star signees J.J. Weaver and Jared Casey could compete for snaps in the outside linebacker rotation, where junior strong-side linebacker Jamar Watson will be counted on to step up and account for at least part of Allen's lost production.
Previewing Kentucky's Specialists for 2019
Australian punter Max Duffy should be a weapon after ranking sixth in the SEC in average punt distance (44.8 per kick) in his first full season of American football. Bowden has shown the ability to make game-changing plays as a returner with two touchdowns on punt returns last season. Placekicking remains a question, with redshirt freshman Chance Poore set to take over the No. 1 job. Poore has a stronger leg than former starter Miles Butler, but inconsistency prevented him from seizing the job a year ago despite Butler ranking 12th of 14 qualifying SEC kickers in field goal percentage (63.6).
Considering that Kentucky went 41 years between 10-win seasons, it is fair to expect the Wildcats to take a step back in 2019. However, there is enough returning talent to make a fourth consecutive bowl berth a reasonable goal, and as Stoops has been quick to note all offseason, it’s not like many pundits expected much from the players Kentucky is now tasked with replacing. If the passing game improves and some young defenders emerge, the schedule opens the door for Kentucky to push for eight or nine wins. There is a real risk of falling behind the SEC East programs Kentucky has passed in recent years, though, if that progress does not happen.