As the Kentucky Wildcats opened fall camp on Monday, some of the top position battles and names to keep an eye on as reports filter out from the Nutter Training Center are:
All eyes will be on Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith as UK opens camp with four of the most talented (albeit unproven) signal callers it has ever featured on the same roster. Consider this: Smith is considered by many to be an afterthought in the competition, and he’s a guy with 3,070 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 61 percent completion rate in his career with the Cats.
If the UK staff has a favorite in this race, they’ve done a remarkable job of keeping it under wraps. My hunch is that Phillips may be the man who emerges No. 1, based on reports of his impressive consistency this spring, but there’s little doubt Towles was the most productive QB in the Blue-White Spring Game and at least one other major scrimmage.
I think Head Coach Mark Stoops would like for one of those two guys to lock down the job in the first two weeks of practice so they can move forward knowing who their leader is and be able to redshirt the talented Barker where it could pay off for him and the Cats toward the end of his career.
This one is a nice competition, but in a different kind of way than quarterback or a couple other spots on the team because, no matter who emerges as No. 1 on the depth chart, the Cats will use at least three or four guys in the rotation. This one is more for bragging rights.
The smart money is on junior Braylon Heard, who transferred in from Nebraska prior to last season, or sophomore Jojo Kemp, grabbing the starting role, but there have been reports that junior Josh Clemons has bounced back better than ever and could be the physical presence the staff craves for tough yards between the tackles. Don’t write off freshman Mikel Horton, either, who may be the most complete back on the roster.
The Cats said goodbye to veterans Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble after the 2013 season, opening the door for several candidates to step into the defensive starting lineup. Senior Mike Douglas brings experience as a reliable backup in his UK career, but it was newcomers like redshirt freshman Regie Meant and juco transfers Melvin Lewis and Cory “C.J.” Johnson who drew steady praise during spring practice and the offseason program.
It may be too early for All-American signee Matt Elam to challenge for a starting job, but I would expect him to at least be in the rotation if he can work out the conditioning end of the equation. Senior Christian Coleman and redshirt freshman Jacob Hyde round out the most physically imposing group of interior D-Linemen (on paper) the Cats have ever featured. Now we’ve got to see if some of these young guns can play at this level.
Gone is the heart and soul of the UK defense the last two years, Avery Williamson, who takes a boatload of career tackles with him to the Tennessee Titans.
What remains at arguably the most important position on that side of the ball is a bit of a mystery. The staff tried anyone and everyone at that spot this spring, but while players like junior Josh Forrest, senior TraVaughn Paschal and freshman Dorian Hendrix flashed signs of potential, nobody outright grabbed the job.
Junior Khalid Henderson could cross-train at both middle and weakside, if necessary, but ballyhooed juco signee Ryan Flannigan really needs to be as good as advertised if the Cats are going to improve defensively. Look for him to emerge at one of the starting linebacker spots, even if it’s not in the middle.
Jeff Drummond, a former sports editor for the Harlan Daily Enterprise, is currently the publisher of AllWildcats.com on the Scout network. The site features comprehensive UK team and recruiting coverage.