Over the next few weeks, we will start taking a look at the SEC teams and discuss the apparent strengths and weaknesses of them as the 2013 season nears.
The idea is to identify what we “know” – as much as we can “know” anything about a season that has yet to start. We will also examine what we think we know, what we don’t know and when we might have answers to the biggest questions.
What We Know
The front seven is loaded with potential – The problem with the word “potential,” unfortunately, is that it typically means “talent not yet realized.” Numerous players along the Wildcats’ front seven have posted strong individual statistics, but the unit on the whole last year largely faltered in key moments. A defensive front with the talent assembled by Joker Phillips should have been far more capable against run-heavy attacks. Instead, Kentucky ranked 10th in the conference in rush yards allowed, 10th in yards per carry and tied for 14th in rushing TDs allowed. This year isn’t 2012, though, and new coach Mark Stoops has the defensive pedigree to immediately turn things around in the Bluegrass State. The talent is still there, led by DTs Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Those two have the size and the ability to stuff the middle against the run while DEs Bud Dupree and junior-college transfer Za’Darius Smith could prove dangerous from the edges. The Cats also return two of their three linebackers, including Avery Williamson – one of the nation’s leading tacklers a year ago. Sophomore LB Khalid Henderson has drawn rave reviews about his ability. Few question the actual talent of the Kentucky front seven. Stoops might be just the guy to turn the potential into impact.
What We Think We Know
At some point, Kentucky will pick a quarterback – Of course, picking the quarterback and announcing who it is are two different subjects entirely, as we learned earlier this week. Apparently the competition is down to two. Speculation has Patrick Towles as the odd man out, leaving the race between Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith. It is a bit on the ridiculous side that Stoops and first-year OC Neal Brown have yet to decide on their starter considering there was no new entrant once August camp began. Mere days before the season opens, only Kentucky and Tennessee have yet to name starters in the SEC. Tennessee has had a prohibitive favorite (Justin Worley) all August, though, and coach Butch Jones has wanted to give chances to his true freshmen. Kentucky had simply been rotating first-string reps among the three quarterbacks since spring. Smith and Whitlow both started last year. Smith opened the season as the starter before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Don’t allow the stats to be deceiving. Smith’s look more impressive, but he also played against inferior competition to the teams Whitlow faced. The quarterback position is pivotal in Brown’s version of the Air Raid – dubbed the “Air Raid II” in reverence of the offense Hal Mumme implemented in Lexington. Brown played for Mumme at Kentucky and coached alongside Tony Franklin, a former Mumme offensive coordinator now manning the same post at Cal. Brown enjoyed a big step up in competition when he jumped from Troy to Texas Tech. Though the Red Raiders struggled in Brown’s three seasons, the offense was hardly the primary culprit. Brown’s offenses have been successful wherever he’s been and he seems energized by the return to his alma mater. Kentucky has talent at the quarterback position and the winner of the never-ending battle has breakout star potential.
RB Raymond Sanders should be able to find more space in 2013 – That’s more a product of Brown’s offense than what returns on the offensive line. Sanders has some toughness, but is not built for life as a between-the-tackles runner in a pro-style offense. A steady diet of draws, swing passes, screens and runs out of a spread setting seems to better suit Sanders, the leading rusher from last year. He ran for 669 yards and 5 TDs and coaches like his ability to break out during his senior season. The aforementioned offensive line shouldn’t be bad, but it took a couple big hits during the offseason. Most notably, the departure of all-America G Larry Warford will leave a void that can’t really be filled. On the glass-half-full side, the Wildcats do rturn three starters, including T Darrian Miller.
What We Don’t Know
Can an inexperienced secondary avoid crippling mistakes? – A more experienced secondary last year ranked in the bottom half of the SEC and early indications are that Stoops is concerned with the lack of talent in this year’s group. S Ashely Lowery returns, but there is a potential for a revolving door of new faces in the rest of the Kentucky secondary. Lowery is likely the only mainstay. CB Cody Quinn looked like a good bet to start. An ankle injury midway through August camp has limited him recently, so it remains to be seen if he will be healthy enough to go at the start of the season. Fred Tiller is a leading candidate to fill the other CB role. CBs Nate Willis, Blake McClain and Jaleel Hytche are also in the mix for additional playing time. S Eric Dixon has reportedly earned the nod as Lowery’s back-line mate. As Jennifer Smith from The Lexington Herald-Leader pointed out recently, perhaps the most staggering statistic came on third downs. The Wildcats allowed a 72.5 percent completion rate. When Will We Know? Pretty much immediately. Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino will want to make any SEC team on his path pay for the four conference teams who replaced their coaches not so much as giving him the time of day. The Wildcats were one of those teams. As coincidence has it, the Hilltoppers play Kentucky in Week 1. Petrino’s reputation as a quarterback groomer makes this matchup intriguing – and the Hilltoppers won last year. Then, two weeks later, the Cats take on Louisville and all-America passer QB Teddy Bridgewater. A young secondary had better grow up fast.
Will the Air Raid II offense do enough to help Kentucky return to respectability? – For everything Brown’s offense did in three years at Texas Tech – and it did plenty – the Red Raiders managed just a 20-17 record during his time in Lubbock. Granted, Brown’s offense provides an exciting brand of football. That doesn’t necessarily equate to more winning big. With the questions in the secondary, the offense might be asked to carry the load and beat teams 38-35. So if Brown’s unit is posting 31 points in those games, an improved offense isn’t quite good enough. The other big question will surround what has often bothered critics of the spread passing offenses – can the group grind out tough yards and first downs in clock-running situations. Kentucky’s defense is not complete enough to allow teams to own significant time of possession advantages. When Will We Know? November should provide plenty of answers toward the direction of the program. Ending the season with games against Missouri, Vanderbilt and Tennessee gives Kentucky an opportunity to see where it stacks up against the lesser teams in the division. It’s possible the Wildcats could need to win two – or three – of those games to qualify for a bowl game.