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Kentucky Wildcats 2016 Spring Football Preview

Drew Barker

Drew Barker

Kentucky started off 2014 at 5-1 before finishing 5-7. In 2015, the Wildcats started 4-1 only to finish with the same 5-7 record, just one game shy of bowl eligibility for the second year in a row. They are 1-7 in November under head coach Mark Stoops. That lone win came against Charlotte last season. So, what's up with the hot starts and bad finishes?

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Well, a lot of it has to do simply with beating bad teams early. But it is strange that not only has Kentucky been beaten down the stretch, it also has been beaten badly. The Wildcats needed to make some changes in the offseason and they did just that. Now, there are some new faces in new places, ready to push the 'Cats over that five-win mark in 2016.

This spring, there are several areas that will see an overhaul. Here are a few to keep an eye on as the Wildcats begin popping pads.

5 Storylines to Watch in Kentucky Spring Practice

1. New coaches on offense

Kentucky hired a new coordinator in the offseason to help revitalize an offense that struggled to find the end zone last year. Eddie Gran, who coached with Stoops at Florida State, has a proven track record of developing talent and is an experienced play-caller. Gran is best when working with running backs, so moving the ground game forward will be one of his top priorities in the spring. Gran has spent the last few seasons at Cincinnati, but before that, he spent 15 years as a coach in the SEC at Auburn and Tennessee.

Darin Hinshaw also moved from Cincinnati with Gran. Hinshaw will be the Wildcats' co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He has plenty of experience, having coached quarterbacks and wide receivers at Tennessee before heading to Cincinnati. Under Hinshaw and Gran, Cincinnati averaged nearly 540 yards per game in total offense. The upgrade in coaching should help Kentucky on offense this spring.

2. Tons of potential in the passing game

With its new coaches, Kentucky also has plenty to look forward to on the field. The Wildcats return nearly all of their production in the passing game from a year ago. Receivers Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, and Jeff Badet were Kentucky's top three pass catchers. They combined for more than 1,700 yards receiving. Baker, especially, has potential to get better. With a lengthy and stocky frame, he has big-time playmaking ability. Overall, the group has experience.

At quarterback, it looks like Drew Barker will be the man, especially after Patrick Towles decided to transfer. Barker was mostly efficient in the second half of last season, except for an abysmal showing against Louisville. One of his best qualities was the ability to stay poised on the road against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Early enrollee Gunnar Hoak could contend for the quarterback spot, but the job will be Barker's to lose. If Barker gets better in the spring while working with Hinshaw, watch out for the Wildcats' air attack.

3. Running game could be exceptional

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As mentioned above, Gran is known for working with running backs. And he has plenty to work with in that department in Lexington. Stanley "Boom" Williams has lightning speed and may be one of the SEC's most underrated players. He ran for 855 yards last season and showed on several occasions that he can break a big gain at any time. Williams is joined in the backfield by Jojo Kemp, who piled up more than 500 yards on the ground last season. Also, impressive sophomore Mikel Horton is back.

Related: College Football's Pre-Spring Top 75 Running Back Rankings for 2016

Arguably the strongest piece of the offense returning for the Wildcats is the offensive line. While tackle Jordan Swindle has moved on, four starters from last season will be ready to go this spring. Kentucky was middle-of-the-road in the SEC in rushing in 2015, but the Wildcats have some massive run blockers up front. The guys coming back are all around 300 pounds or heavier and they are one of the most experienced groups in the SEC. Just as Hinshaw is expected to do wonders working with the quarterbacks, Gran should be able to improve the running game.

4. Trouble on defense

The Wildcats return only four starters from a defense that ranked 59th in the country in yards allowed per game last year. While that may not sound good, Kentucky could use a bit of change in some areas of the defense anyway. Up front, the Wildcats will have to replace defensive linemen Melvin Lewis and Cory Johnson. Fortunately, they will still have one of their most talented players, Matt Elam, who could develop into one of SEC's best nose tackles.

At linebacker, the 'Cats would have already been limping after losing Ryan Flannigan and Josh Forrest. But then, Jason Hatcher was arrested and booted from the team in February after being charged with trafficking marijuana. To make matters worse, safety A.J. Stamps is gone in the secondary. Overall, Kentucky must replace six of its top seven tacklers from 2015. That will be no easy task, but the spring should give everyone a nice gauge of how that process is coming along.

5. Quality newcomers to watch

While results on the field have not been where the Kentucky coaches and players want them to be, recruiting under Stoops has been pretty good. In his time in Lexington, Stoops has brought in some real SEC-caliber players. This year was no different. The Wildcats owned their state, landing Drake Jackson, Kash Daniel and Landon Young, all of whom were homegrown 4-star prospects. Even though the offensive line is deep, Jackson and Young could push some of the older guys for playing time. Of course, Daniel should be a factor early in a reeling linebacker group.

Jonesboro, Ga., native Jordan Griffin is a lockdown corner who also could see early playing time. But the freshmen are not the only ones to watch. Junior college transfer Tate Leavitt, who last played at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, has the frame of a reliable left tackle. If there is one guy in Kentucky's 2016 class who is SEC-ready, it is him. Don't be surprised if Leavitt ends up being the replacement for Swindle on the offensive line.

Pre-Spring Kentucky Outlook in the SEC

To put it simply, the SEC East is up for grabs yet again. Kentucky probably isn't ready to jump in as the division's representative in Atlanta this season, but that doesn't mean the Wildcats can't have a good year. The offense, by all accounts, looks to be improved. In fact, if the quarterback play is at the level of the other position groups, Kentucky could be very difficult to stop.

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There are a lot more questions on the defensive side, but to look at it positively, maybe what Kentucky needs is some new faces. It will help being able to build the defense around Matt Elam in the center. Besides road trips to Florida, Tennessee and Alabama, the schedule isn't too daunting. If the defense does its part, the Wildcats should be able to reach that six-win mark in 2016.

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host and lead SEC Writer for Three Point Stance Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.