The Kentucky Wildcats struggled to a 2-10 record last season, but the talent level in Lexington has improved, and the Big Blue Nation hopes the team is better as well.
This will be the second year for head coach Mark Stoops in the Bluegrass. Last season, Stoops dealt with one of the nation’s toughest schedules while fielding a team that didn’t have a lot of Southeastern Conference-level talent. Stoops has worked wonders in recruiting, but those players still must prove it on the field.
The biggest question surrounding Kentucky football this fall will be: who will be the starting quarterback? Jalen Whitlow, who got the majority of the snaps last season, has transferred. Maxwell Smith, who also saw game action, is injured and may not be ready for the season.
That leaves three players still in contention – redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker. Towles and Barker are both from the state of Kentucky, and both came to Lexington as highly-touted prospects. Towles did show flashes of brilliance as a true freshman before injuries sidelined him.
Kentucky has a stable of running backs for the 2014 season. Sophomore Jojo Kemp returns after leading the team with 482 rushing yards last season. Braylon Heard, a transfer who played for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, should also see significant time in the backfield. Josh Clemons returns after a pair of significant injuries, and true freshman Mikel Horton is expected to see time in the backfield as well.
At wide receiver, Kentucky returns its top four receivers from last season. Javess Blue, who missed spring practice due to injury, had 586 yards receiving last season, and led the team with four touchdowns. Ryan Timmons (338 yards receiving), Jeff Badet (285) and Demarco Robinson (213) are also back to help offensive coordinator Neal Brown and his “Air Raid” offense.
The defensive line will be the strongest unit for the Wildcats in 2014. Despite losses in the middle of the line, the defensive ends will form one of the best tandems in all of college football.
Alvin “Bud” Dupree is at one defensive end spot. Last season, Dupree was second on the team with 61 tackles, while leading the team with seven sacks. At the other defensive end spot is Za’Darius Smith, who was third on the team with 59 stops in 2013. Smith was second on the team with six sacks.
Kentucky will need some help at linebacker, especially after losing last season’s leading tackler, Avery Williamson. Khalid Henderson should be a solid starter for the Big Blue, Josh Forrest also returns.
In the secondary, Kentucky has returning starters at each position. Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn are the starters returning at cornerback, while Eric Dixon and Ashely Lowery return at safety. Blake McClain started at the nickel position last year, and he returns for the 2014 season. J.D. Harmon missed last season, but is back this year and will provide depth for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.
As usual, Kentucky will face a tough SEC schedule that will make things difficult on a team hoping to improve.
Kentucky opens with home games against Tennessee-Martin and Ohio before visiting the Florida Gators in week three. Kentucky has not beaten Florida since 1986 and has not won in Gainesville since 1979.
Kentucky faces its two biggest rivals to close the season, and both games are on the road. On November 15, Kentucky visits the Tennessee Volunteers. After a week off, Kentucky makes the trek west to face its hated intrastate rival, the Louisville Cardinals.
The Wildcats aren’t a likely bowl team in 2014, but if Stoops and company can continue to improve the talent level, and if the team can get better each year, it won’t be long before Kentucky gets back to bowl eligibility.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.