Missouri vs. Kentucky
Date: Nov. 1
Record: Kentucky finished 2-10 in 2013 including a 48-17 loss to Missouri in Lexington. The series is tied 2-2.
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
After years of frustration, Wildcats fans are hungry for a winner. Mark Stoops was one of the outstanding assistant coaches in college football, and has brought in impressive recruiting classes to Lexington. But this was a tough rebuilding job, as evidenced by an embarrassing 10 losses last year. Expect serious improvement for Big Blue this year.
The offense could be substantially better (not that that’s saying much) but there are some “ifs” starting at quarterback where nobody can say with certainty who will be the starter. Last year’s main guy, Jalen Whitlow, transferred after being asked to switch to receiver. Maxwell Smith filled in, and is now sitting fourth on the depth chart. The only other quarterback with any experience is Patrick Towles, who played some in ’12 then redshirted last season. Reese Phillips was almost played as a true freshman last year, but coaches resisted the temptation, and the redshirt freshman is in the conversation, as is true freshman Drew Barker. Barker may be the future, but one can’t expect much from a totally inexperienced quarterback. I expect Towles to start the season, with Phillips coming along by the time the ‘Cats get to Columbia.
Jojo Kemp returns at the running back slot, he led the team with 482 yards in this pass-first offense. But he’ll be pushed and probably passed by Braylon Heard, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry in two seasons in a Nebraska uniform before sitting out last season when he transferred to UK. The comeback after two years off the field of Josh Clemons might not be quite a Henry Josey-type miracle, but he’s bounced from two serious injuries—a knee and an Achilles—and led the team with nearly 100 yards rushing in its spring game.
The wide receiver mix looks a little like the one at quarterback, a lot of potential but not a ton of experience. Javess Blue is back, with 43 catches for 584 and four touchdowns last year. There’s some depth, with sophomore Ryan Timmons and Jeff Badet the only returners with more than 20 receptions last year. All three of those guys made big plays last year, and that’s what this offense is looking for. Badet broke his leg in spring ball but probably will be full strength by the time the ‘Cats get to Columbia. There’s experienced depth as well, and some fine new freshmen, but this isn’t a bunch that’s going to set the SEC on fire. Senior DeMarco Robinson would help, but he was suspended indefinitely during the 2013 season and Stoops recently confirmed he’s not ready to return to the field.
The offensive line needs to show improvement. Four starters return, including Darrian Miller, who’s been a starter at LT for two seasons, and center Jon Toth, who was all-freshman SEC last season. Zach West’s got a long resume at LG and Jordan Swindle had a pretty good season at RG last year. Part of the reason for concern here is that the Wildcats gave up a league-leading 39 sacks last year, but that may be a bit misleading, given that this is a team that wants to pass a lot under the best of circumstances — and 2013 was nowhere near the best of circumstances. Teams that pass a lot get sacked more.
Still, these guys need to step up for Kentucky to get out of the SEC East basement. The Wildcats recruited some very good linemen in the incoming class, but the most recent indications are that UK would like to redshirt them, and if this bunch plays well enough in fall camp, that’s the best course for the Wildcats future. It’s pretty rare that a brand new baby freshman’s able to handle offensive line play in the SEC, people know the physical demands but offensive line play also requires some knowledge of the game and complicated passing schemes, and it’s a position where experience matters.
While they lost some real talent, eight starters return to the ‘Cats defense. A number of observers have voted Alvin “Bud” Dupree all-SEC before the season ahead of Marcus Golden. I’m not sure I agree, but Dupree’s scary good. Za’Darius Smith returns at the other end slot, he and Dupree combined for 13 sacks and 16 TFLs last year. Senior Mike Douglas returns in the middle, having had 28 tackles last year, and redshirt freshman Regie Meant and junior college transfer C.J. Johnson show some promise. Stoops also singled out DT Matt Elam for praise early in fall practice. A high school All-American, Elam brings the size, standing 6-foot-7-inches and weighing at a stout 375.
News that 2012 starter Miles Simpson won’t return from a hip injury isn’t good, but UK returns two starters at linebacker in Khalid Henderson and TraVaughn Paschal. Ryan Flannigan, another juco transfer, missed spring ball and summer conditioning because of academic requirements but is still thought to be a possible third starter. Blake McClain plays a hybrid LB/safety role, similar to South Carolina’s spur, and safety Daron Blaylock moves up from safety. There’s not a lot of depth here.
That’s not the case in the secondary, which is no surprise—Stoops has always been a defensive backfield-minded coach. This wasn’t a good secondary last year, but if there’s any area one can expect improvement in Stoops’ second season, it’s here. They return starters at corner in Nate Willis and Fred Tiller, and after sitting out ’13 for academic reasons J.D. Harmon is back and may be the best of the bunch. Ashely Lowery is back at SS, and the free spot probably will go to yet another juco transfer, A.J. Stamps out of East Mississippi Community College.
There are way too many question marks to predict too much for the 2014 Kentucky team, but there are some very talented transfers and freshmen on this team. If everything falls together, Kentucky could be significantly improved and pull off some upsets. Were this game in Lexington I might worry more about it, but the Tigers should be able to handle it. Closer than people expect, but this is another Tiger win to go to 8-1. Kentucky’s longer term future looks pretty bright under Stoops, but don’t ever forget—whether we’re talking Big 12 or SEC, Gary Pinkel and his staff have a long history of beating teams whose recruiting classes are much more highly-ranked by the “experts.”
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association. Find him on Twitter: @KBIAHellwege