Few teams are likely to be more polarizing than Kentucky leading up to the 2020 season. Pundits will look at the roster and see that Lynn Bowden Jr., who almost single-handedly carried the offense for the final eight games, is gone and assume that Mark Stoops’ program is poised for a step back. Those inside the UK locker room will point to unprecedented returning depth at almost every position as proof the team might be poised to make a run at its second double-digit win season in three years.
Stoops has led Kentucky to four consecutive bowl games and has dug out of the hole of his 2–10 debut season in 2013 to bring his career record in seven seasons to .500 at 44–44. Now the question is whether the program has reached its peak at playing in mid-tier bowl games each year or if it could take another jump to compete with Georgia and Florida in the SEC East. “We’re going forward and we want to continue to push forward,” Stoops says. “I want to see it go to another level.”
Previewing Kentucky's Offense for 2020
There are options at quarterback, but all have questions. Former starter Terry Wilson should be back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the second game last season, but it is unclear how much rust he will need to shake off. Sawyer Smith started three games after Wilson’s injury but struggled while battling shoulder and wrist ailments. Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, a former top-50 recruit and powerful runner, could push for the starting job even if Wilson is healthy, but he needs a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately.
Quarterback uncertainty should be eased thanks to a strong rushing game led by a stellar offensive line and running backs Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez Jr., who combined for 1,975 yards last season. Smoke is the burner of the returning trio, and Rodriguez is the power back. Rose is a blend of the two and kept the starting job thanks in part to his steadying presence as a blocker when needed.
The offensive line lost All-SEC guard Logan Stenberg but returns three former U.S. Army All-Americans in left tackle Landon Young, center Drake Jackson and right tackle Darian Kinnard. It will be important for left guard Kenneth Horsey and other younger players like backup center Quintin Wilson to push for rotation spots with Young, Jackson and right guard Luke Fortner graduating after the season.
Kentucky’s passing game was nonexistent for most of 2019. The receivers embraced their roles as blockers in order to win games, but there are legitimate questions about how much development was lost for some of the promising young players at the position. Josh Ali will look to build on an encouraging showing in the Belk Bowl, where he caught the game-winning touchdown; he hopes to emerge as a true go-to threat as a senior. Clevan Thomas Jr. should provide another veteran presence in the slot, but Kentucky needs several younger players to step up. There should be snaps available for freshmen.
Tight ends Justin Rigg and Keaton Upshaw might be the most reliable of all the returning pass-catchers, so Kentucky will likely use plenty of two-tight end sets to get them on the field.
Previewing Kentucky's Defense for 2020
The bulk of Kentucky’s 2019 defense will return in 2020, but the defensive line must replace some losses. Nose guard Quinton Bohanna is a dark horse All-SEC candidate. He is likely to be flanked by Phil Hoskins, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of 2019, and Josh Paschal, who moved from outside linebacker to defensive end this spring. Depth should be a plus, and defensive line was also the strength of the 2020 signing class, led by five-star Michigan native Justin Rogers.
Linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson’s junior stats last season look strikingly similar to Josh Allen’s the year before Allen’s historic senior year. Even if he does not quite make the jump Allen did, Watson should anchor Kentucky’s pass rush as a senior in 2020. Inside linebackers DeAndre Square and Jamin Davis have shown great potential in the last two years, with Square poised to take on a more vocal leadership role.
Some young defensive backs more than held their own while learning on the job in 2019 and should be poised for a significant jump. Safety Yusuf Corker and cornerback Brandin Echols flashed All-SEC-level talent at times during their first year as starters, and Davonte Robinson, a former part-time starter at nickel back, is set to return after missing all of 2019 with injury. LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph received rave reviews from his teammates while sitting out last season and could start opposite Echols at cornerback.
Previewing Kentucky's Specialists for 2020
Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy is back at punter for his final year of eligibility at 27. Kicker was a season-long problem for Kentucky in 2019, so Stoops will hope either Chance Poore or walk-on Matt Ruffolo is able to take control of the job.
If a quarterback emerges — and that’s a big if — there is enough talent and depth elsewhere to make it easy to imagine a special season for Kentucky in 2020. With more uncertainty than ever in college football, it’s not out of the question that Stoops’ team could land near the top of the SEC East.