After starting strong and finishing poorly in 2017, consistency will be key in Lexington
The Kentucky Wildcats take the field this week for the first time in 2018. Their 15-practice spring schedule goes until April 13 with the annual Blue-White Game.
The Wildcats’ 2017 season had its share of ups and downs. Kentucky opened with three consecutive wins against Southern Miss, FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky and South Carolina before dropping a one-point game against Florida. After rebounding to beat Eastern Michigan and Missouri, the slide arrived quickly in Lexington. The Wildcats won only two of their next five — alternating wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt with losses to Ole Miss and Georgia — landing them tied for third in the SEC East. A 44-17 loss to Louisville on Senior Day kept the Wildcats from an eight-win regular season, and another one-point loss — this time to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl — sealed a season-ending three-game losing streak.
So what does 2018 hold for Kentucky. Here are some things to keep an eye on as the Wildcats get back to work.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kentucky’s Spring Practice
1. Spelling Snell
Running back Benny Snell, Jr. was not just the feature back for the Wildcats a season ago, he was the epitome of a workhorse. Snell rushed for 1,333 yards last season as a sophomore, which is impressive on its face, but even more so when you consider that the next two leading rushers combined for 739 yards, nearly 600 fewer than Snell. So as Snell continues to amass carries, it is imperative that somebody take some of the load off to keep him fresh and productive for another full season. Look for that someone to be senior Sihiem King, who ran for 364 yards last season. If King can maintain his 4.6 yards per carry average from last season while increasing his workload that would surely be a win for the Kentucky offense, both now and in the future.
2. Quarterback questions
There’s no question of who the starting running back is, but the man who will be handing off to him is a far different matter. With Stephen Johnson playing his final season in 2017 and Drew Barker departing the program, there are four quarterbacks on the roster. Junior college transfer Terry Wilson is the likely favorite, though he will face plenty of competition this spring. Sophomores Gunnar Hoak and Walker Wood, along with redshirt freshman Danny Clark, have never played a down for Kentucky outside of the spring game, but there is certainly plenty of talent — albeit inexperienced and untested — that will emerge.
3. Linebackers after Love
One of the biggest concerns in 2018 is at middle linebacker, where two-year staple Courtney Love leaves a gaping hole after his graduation. Love played all 26 games over the past two years, finishing third on the team with 76 tackles in 2016 and finishing second last season with 92. Seniors Denzil Ware (above, right) and Josh Allen have two of the starting spots under control, but junior Kash Daniel will get a shot to fill Love’s vacant middle linebacker slot. Behind them are sophomores Josh Paschal and Jamar “Boogie” Watson, both of whom made limited contributions a season ago. There is still experience and skill at the position, but with Love absent there will need to be a more complete and balanced approach.
4. Secondary struggles
Though experience is usually an indicator of success, last year’s starting secondary featured four juniors: Derrick Baity, Darius West, Mike Edwards and Lonnie Johnson Jr. However, that defense allowed more than 251 passing yards per game in 2017, second worst in the conference and in the bottom 30 in the entire FBS. Simply put, this now-senior quartet will have to play better from the start to keep opponents off the board and keep the Wildcats in games.
5. Defensive line's next steps
Another point of emphasis on the defensive side of the ball will be up front. This was a unit that — though it started a junior (Adrian Middleton), a sophomore (T.J. Carter) and a freshman (Quinton Bohanna) in the 3-4 scheme — tallied more than 2.3 sacks per game in 2017, good enough to finish in the top 50 nationally. Continued growth will be a priority for this unit as these players attempt to build on that performance and cause havoc in opposing backfields.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.