Mr. CFB Spring Tour: After historic season, does Kentucky take a step back?
Lexington, Ky.—It was exactly the kind of season Mark Stoops thought was possible when he began building the Kentucky football program six years ago.
After going 2-10, 5-7, and 5-7 in his first three seasons, Stoops told Kentucky’s fans to be patient. The Wildcats were getting better.
After two straight bowl seasons of 7-6 and over $200 million in facility improvements, the payoff finally came in 2018 when the Kentucky football team:
**--Went 10-3, its first 10-win season since 1977 and only the third in school history.
**--Capped off that 10-win season with a New Year’s Day Bowl victory. The only other time the Wildcats have done that (1950), Paul W. (Bear) Bryant was the head coach.
**--Produced the Bednarik and Nagurski Award winner in defensive end Josh Allen, who is projected to be among the top five picks in the April NFL Draft.
**--Produced the leading rusher in Kentucky history in Benny Snell. Snell rushed for 3,873 yards in just three seasons. Sonny Collins, who previously held the record, needed four seasons to do it.
**--Broke its 31-game losing streak to Florida by going to Gainesville and dominating 27-16.
**--Had eight players invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. That is a school record and the fourth-highest in the SEC this season.
So now what, Coach Stoops?
“Same as every year,” said Stoops.
Translation? Despite the loss of 16 seniors plus Snell from one of the best teams in school history, the folks who work here in the $45 million Joe Craft Football Training Facility don’t want to hear anything about taking a step back.
“Nobody thought we had a solid team last year but I did,” said Stoops, now in position to become only the second coach in school history to take Kentucky to four straight bowl games. “And I feel the same way going into this year. Our guys in the program now are further along because they’ve seen what it takes. They’ve seen a good model. “
While there is no question that Kentucky’s football foundation has come a long way in the past six years, there are some real world things this team will have to address if it hopes to again be a factor in the SEC East.
Last season Kentucky’s offense was built around the running of Snell, the No. 2 rusher in the SEC, and a defense that ranked No. 2 in the conference (and sixth nationally) in points allowed per game (13.2 ppg).
With a new defensive coordinator (Brad White), the loss of Allen, and five defensive backs (four of which were invited to the combine) gone it’s hard to imagine that the Kentucky defense can be that good again.
And without Snell, who was the ultimate football warrior with the game on the line, Kentucky knows that it’s going to have to change its formula for success.
“Last year we had a first-year quarterback and a great defense. So our job on offense was not to screw it up,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “Now we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to be more explosive. We’re going to open it up a little more.”
Gran has done this before. In his final season under Tommy Tuberville at Cincinnati (2015) the Bearcats ranked fourth nationally in passing offense (373.1 ypg) and fifth in total offense (559.4 ypg). That offense set 18 school records.
But in order for the Kentucky offense to become significantly more productive than it was a year ago, three things have to happen:
**--Quarterback Terry Wilson, who only threw for 1,889 yards last season, has to step up his game. To that end Gran reached out and consulted several coaches in the offseason as to how maximize Wilson’s skill set.
“Terry has worked his tail off since the season,” said Gran. “He knows he has to throw the deep ball better.”
**--Running back A.J. Rose, who averaged 6.2 yards as a backup to Snell, has to become an every down back.
“A.J. is talented enough to be in this league and to be successful,” said Gran. “And we’ve got some other guys who can help. I think this is going to be a scenario where we play 2-3 backs.”
**--As a sophomore last season Lynn Bowden caught 67 passes for 745 yards. He is the big-play guy. But Kentucky will need to find others.
But even if Kentucky finds answers to these questions, the fact is that the SEC East is getting better. Florida will be a preseason Top 10-12 team. Tennessee, which handed Kentucky one of its three losses in Knoxville last season, is moving in the right direction. Kentucky has to go to Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina.
Stoops believes strongly that Kentucky has recruited well enough and developed its players to the point where the Wildcats are not going to take a big step back. Consider this: Of the eight Kentucky players invited to attend the NFL combine in February, seven were rated 3-stars or less coming out of high school.
Allen was a two-star recruit with only one other college offer (Monmouth) when Kentucky signed him.
“I just know what our foundation is solid,” said Stoops. “There are a lot of tough teams in this league. And we are one of them.”