Mark Stoops probably won't change Kentucky football overnight, but the new coach should make spring football in Lexington more exciting than it's been in a long time.
The Wildcats haven't put up a fight in the SEC in a while, and if they do plan on turning things around, it starts in the first practices under Stoops. Rich Brooks got the team to a plateau of seven or eight wins towards the end of his career, but things got worse under Joker Phillips. During his first year, they went to a bowl game and lost; during his second, they went 5-7, and during his third, they went 0-8 in conference, 2-10 overall.
Stoops brings new blood, and has shown an ability to turn things around quickly -- under his brother, Mike, he took an Arizona team that was 109th in scoring defense and had it as high as No. 33. When he took the Florida State defensive coordinator job, the Seminoles were 94th in scoring defense; this past year, they were sixth, allowing just 14.7 points a game. An emphasis on defense will be a good start for a team that allowed more than 29 points in every single SEC game. With only four returning starters on defense, Stoops has his work cut out for him in spring ball.
That said, the real problems for the Wildcats were on offense, where Kentucky only managed 17.9 points per game, 119th in the country, as it dealt with the gauntlet of the SEC. Former Kentucky player Neal Brown comes in as offensive coordinator from Texas Tech, where he helped run an Air Raid attack that threw for over 350 yards a game. It's not quite clear whether they have the personnel to run it, though. Maxwell Smith will likely take the reins at quarterback in spring ball after an injury ended his sophomore year, but freshman Jalen Whitlow, more of a running quarterback, started through all most of SEC play.
Spring practice start date: March 18
Spring game date, location, TV info: April 13
Approximate returning starters: Offense: five. Both guys who started at quarterback are back, with Smith likely in charge for now. Also coming back are wide receivers DeMarco Johnson, second on the team in receiving, as well as Daryl Collins, plus two linemen in Darrian Miller and Zach West. A lot of inexperienced guys will be making differences on offense. Also returning are leading rushers Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George.
Defense: Six. Consistent starters to return are linebackers Alvin Dupree and Miles Simpson, who finished second and third on the squad in tackles, as well as defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble. Safety Ashely Lowry and cornerback Cody Quinn got a few starts each in the secondary.
Biggest addition: Stoops. The first year might not be the best, although Stoops did make a difference on the recruiting trail, giving Kentucky the No. 29 class per Rivals this year. Still, that's not great for the SEC, and those guys aren't in spring camp for the most part. Nevertheless, things are looking up.
New players?: Two JUCO transfers and one early enrollee are already with the Wildcats. The high school player is three-star quarterback Reese Phillips, who will get an spring session to learn Neal Brown's playbook and could even compete for regular season reps with Smith and Whitlow -- after all, both were underclassmen last year. Defensive end Za'Darius Smith and tight end Steven Borden are the two junior college transfers, and with the entire line gone from last year, Smith could play right away.
New coaches? The entire staff is new under Stoops. Brown brings wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord from Lubbock. Defensive coordinator T.J. Eliot was on Stoops' staff at Florida State. Cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley comes from Tennessee. Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh was with Syracuse before a stint working at a junior college. Tight ends coach Vince Marrow left Nebraska's staff. Offensive line coach John Schlarman returns to his alma mater from Troy. And safeties/special teams coach Bradley Dale Peveto had spent the last four years as head coach at Northwestern State.
New schemes? Kentucky running an Air Raid might be a strange sight, but it figures that Brown could run it. He kept the system set in place under Mike Leach going, as the Red Raiders were top-10 in passing offense all three of his years. And if he could run that offense under notably conservative coach Tommy Tuberville, there's no reason he can't bring it to Lexington.