LEXINGTON (AP) — The optimistic outlook by Kentucky’s veteran players and a top-20 recruiting class are reflections of coach Mark Stoops’ impact.
Stoops is looking to make an even bigger mark with more wins in his second season after going 2-10 last year.
Kentucky figured to struggle last season with the transition to a new coaching staff and a challenging schedule that featured four consecutive games against ranked teams. And they did.
The Wildcats endured another winless season in the Southeastern Conference and their league losing streak now stands at 16, dating back to 2011.
Kentucky is picked to finish last in the Eastern division again — though players are hungry to prove their doubters wrong. While the young Wildcats understand it’s a process of small steps, they’re determined to showcase their progress.
“Everybody is pumped,” sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said of the attitude shift. “You’re going to see a hungry, humble team that’s been working hard. The guys don’t want to go back to losing, so they’re going to be out there giving their all on every play.
“I’m excited and feel my teammates are excited. I know that’s going to carry over to the field.”
Kentucky is young again at many positions, but having 36 of 49 returnees with at least one career start helps. Eight defensive starters are back in the 4-3 scheme and that unit will likely have to carry the load.
The offense returns seven starters but is preparing for a new quarterback to direct the pass-oriented “Air Raid” attack.
From there the Wildcats’ task will be beating multiple FBS-level schools for a change along with winning an SEC game for the first time since topping Tennessee in the 2011 season finale. Kentucky has lost big in all but a few conference games since then.
Nonetheless, the defense-minded Stoops has seen players’ mindsets become positive and said the culture shift is “hard to define in any one sentence. I think we’ve grown in a lot of areas. It’s with leadership and guys taking ownership of this team and pushing. … We’re getting there. Guys are stepping up and leading.”
Here are five things to watch at Kentucky this season:
WHO’S UNDER CENTER? That’s been the main question as the coaching staff chooses between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker or even Maxwell Smith to be the starting quarterback. From there it’s a question of whether the winner can execute Neal Brown’s fast-paced scheme and inject life into an offense that has limped the past two seasons.
FRESH FACES: Stoops has succeeded in making Kentucky a destination for recruits by landing a top-20 class including 6-foot-7, 375-pound defensive tackle Matt Elam. Don’t be surprised if many of these newcomers get playing time as the coach takes another step toward grooming the talent and depth that Kentucky has lacked recently. In fact, he has hinted at using two dozen youngsters from his past two classes, which might help the Wildcats in the long term. Said Stoops, “it’s frustrating to be so young in certain spots again, but it is what it is and it’s our job to get them better.”
BACKFIELD DEPTH: The hard-running Kemp is expected to shoulder a bigger load in the ground game after leading Kentucky with 482 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. He’ll have help with Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard now eligible, and junior Josh Clemons returns after missing the past two seasons with injuries.
BOOKEND PASS RUSHERS: Defensive ends Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith are looking for bigger things after combining for 120 tackles, 13 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in 2013. They passed up the NFL draft to return and provide pressure from the edge this season, not to mention filling the leadership void left by the departure of all-SEC linebacker Avery Williamson to the NFL.
PARDON OUR DUST: Commonwealth Stadium is undergoing a $120 million renovation that’s expected to be completed by next season. Fans shouldn’t encounter much disruption, but seating capacity has been reduced to 62,000 with temporary lights in place on the press box side.