In just over five months as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, Mark Stoops has made great strides for a program that is not known for its football tradition.
Stoops has hired a top-notch staff, has recruited the best class in the history of the school, has energized the fan base so much that more than 50,000 fans showed up for the spring game and has generally erased the bad feelings left by last season’s 2-10 team.
Now, Stoops must take that momentum on the field and produce a team that can actually compete in the Southeastern Conference. Last season, UK was 0-8 in the SEC, after going 2-6 the season before. Stoops, and the Big Blue Nation, hope that can change in 2013.
If change is to come to the Bluegrass, there are several players that need to have big seasons for the Big Blue.
Defensive Ends Za’Darius Smith and Alvin “Bud” Dupree will be important defenders in Stoops’ 4-3 defense. The nation’s number-one junior college strongside defensive end last season, Smith chose Kentucky over a host of other more powerful programs. Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot hope that Smith can be one of the anchors on the defensive line in 2013.
The play of Dupree will be very important for the Kentucky defense in 2013. Dupree is moving from linebacker to defensive end, and if he continues to improve, the defensive line should be the best part of the Wildcat defense in 2013. Dupree was second on the team last year with 91 tackles, but he led the team in tackles for loss (12 and a half) and sacks (six and a half).
Wide Receiver DeMarcus Sweat is perhaps the most explosive of Kentucky’s receivers. Sweat had a problem with dropped balls on the field and discipline off the field last season. But when he did catch the ball, he made the most of it, turning four catches into 84 yards and two touchdowns. In Neal Brown’s offense, the more available receivers, the better, and Sweat is one of the most talented on the current roster.
While it appears that Raymond Sanders will probably be the starter at running back in 2013, redshirt sophomore Josh Clemons perhaps has the most upside. As a true freshman in 2011, Clemons had 279 yards rushing before a knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of that season and all of last season. Clemons appears to be healthy now, and his return will bolster the running game for the Wildcats.
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow had the best spring game among the three players vying for the starting signal caller job. As a true freshman last season, Whitlow was forced into action due to injuries to starting quarterback Maxwell Smith and senior Morgan Newton. While Whitlow wasn’t spectacular, he wasn’t awful. And in UK’s spring game, Whitlow appeared to be ahead of Smith and the other contender for the job, Patrick Towles. Whitlow’s ability to run adds another dimension to the Kentucky offense, which gives him an advantage in the ongoing quarterback race.
It will take more than just these players to turn the fortunes of a team coming off of a 2-10 season, but if the players listed above can produce, it would help Stoops and Company make strides sooner than anyone expects.