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1. Mark Stoops has impressed thus far
There were 50,831 fans in attendance at Kentucky's spring game. That's more than Texas or Texas A&M drew, more than SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina drew, more than Ohio State drew, and way more than Notre Dame, Oklahoma, or LSU drew. Hell, that's more than Kentucky drew for five of seven real home games in 2012. That many people came to watch not only a scrimmage, but a football scrimmage.
If that doesn't tell you that Mark Stoops has passed his first test as Kentucky's new head coach, I don't know what will.
Florida State's former defensive coordinator, Stoops closed the deal on a pretty good recruiting class; according to Rivals.com, Stoops landed three four-star recruits -- Louisville Trinity DE Jason Hatcher, Youngstown Cardinal Mooney DB Marcus McWilson, and JUCO DE Za'Darius Smith -- and enough other decent recruits to finish with the No. 29 class in the country. He has glad-handed and met the community, he has hired a pretty interesting staff that includes veteran offensive coordinator Neal Brown, an old hand at the spread offense, and young D.J. Eliot, Stoops' defensive ends coach at FSU. He has done everything he can to drum up enthusiasm in Lexington, and he has succeeded.
Stoops has passed the first test with flying colors. But the first test is the easiest. Just like a spring game isn't a real game, the real tests begin this fall, and it's probably going to take a while to see Stoops' efforts paying off to any demonstrable degree.
The reason for this is simple: Kentucky fell so, so far behind over the last couple of seasons. Joker Phillips is by all accounts a great guy and Photoshop whiz, but he couldn't keep the Wildcats afloat following Rich Brooks' retirement in 2009. Kentucky held on in Phillips' first season, falling from 7-6 and 53rd in the F/+ rankings to 6-7 and 54th. But the fall was precipitous, first on paper, then in the win column. Kentucky was 5-7 and 86th in 2011, then amid a youth movement sped up by injuries, crumbled to 2-10 and 112th in 2012.
You could consider it unfair that Phillips was let go when he had some bad breaks and a really, really young team; but when a team falls apart to this degree, you probably aren't going to get it back with the same coach in place. Kentucky elected to make a move, and now Stoops is the man.
2. For Kentucky to go up...
...somebody else in the SEC probably has to go down. This is key. Both Stoops at Kentucky and Butch Jones at Tennessee are pressing all of the right buttons and recruiting well, but that's kind of par for the course in the SEC. Vanderbilt, for instance, has also pressed the right buttons and recruited well of late, and even if each of these programs surpass Missouri -- the Tigers need a good 2013 to avoid a further step backwards in recruiting -- that's just one team.
Who else is going to fall, especially with Ole Miss recruiting like gangbusters and Arkansas and Auburn welcoming new coaches in the SEC West?
Then again, there's Ohio. The reason SEC recruiting is basically a zero-sum game is that most of the teams are fighting for the same elite players in the same region of the country. They will leave the region at times -- Georgia got quarterback Matthew Stafford from the state of Texas, Alabama got Mark Ingram from Michigan, etc. -- but the main reason why the SEC has been so successful of late is that there have been so many good recruits in its collective backyard. That said, Stoops appears to be hitting the recruiting trail hard in a state that is in no way south or east. He signed three Ohio prep players in the 2013 class, and he has scored a jarring five commitments from Ohio kids in the 2014 class thus far (including four star running back Mikel Horton and four-star receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass).
When Missouri entered the SEC, the Tigers not only attempted to establish recruiting footholds in Georgia and Florida, but they also attempted to hit states like Iowa and Illinois hard with their new "Come play in the SEC!" message. It seemed as if it was paying off until they stumbled on the field in 2012 and lost ground.
But there has not yet been any stumbling for Stoops, who was raised in Youngstown and played college football at Iowa. While the Big Ten has been reportedly trying to figure out how to move south, the SEC has, in a way, figured out how to move north. And if Stoops can build a strong base of talent with kids outside of the natural SEC region, the conference just got even tougher.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 112|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|2-Sep||at Louisville||14-32||L||31.0 - 30.7||W|
|8-Sep||Kent State||47-14||W||45.5 - 26.5||W|
|15-Sep||Western Kentucky||31-32||L||24.4 - 20.8||W|
|22-Sep||at Florida||0-38||L||17.7 - 34.1||L|
|29-Sep||South Carolina||17-38||L||19.8 - 32.6||L|
|6-Oct||Mississippi State||14-27||L||14.6 - 28.3||L|
|13-Oct||at Arkansas||7-49||L||10.6 - 48.4||L|
|20-Oct||Georgia||24-29||L||29.9 - 30.4||L|
|27-Oct||at Missouri||10-33||L||13.8 - 29.0||L|
|3-Nov||Vanderbilt||0-40||L||16.3 - 32.3||L|
|17-Nov||Samford||34-3||W||28.8 - 6.9||W|
|24-Nov||at Tennessee||17-37||L||19.9 - 30.3||L|
|Points Per Game||17.9||119||31.0||86|
|Adj. Points Per Game||22.7||109||29.2||71|
3. Injuries hurt
Again, Kentucky was really young in 2012, to the point where the Wildcats weren't going to seriously threaten for bowl eligibility even with strong health. But once players started dropping like flies, the results got ugly. As you see above, Kentucky was reasonably decent early in the season. Yes, they lost to in-state mates Louisville and Western Kentucky, but a) both of those teams were pretty good, b) both of those teams were quite good in September, and c) in between, the Wildcats took out a Kent State team that turned out to be quite good, as well. But things got really hairy, really quickly.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 3 games): Kentucky 33.6, Opponent 26.0 (plus-7.6)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 9 games): Opponent 30.3, Kentucky 19.0 (minus-11.3)
If you remove the Samford game, the Adj. PPG averages for the last eight games fall to Opponent 33.2, Kentucky 17.8. This team didn't have much depth, and once you skimmed off the top layer -- quarterback Morgan Newton played in just seven games, quarterback Maxwell Smith in four, leading rusher Raymond Sanders missed one game, while fellow CoShik Williams missed 10, and bodies were dropping left and right in the defensive secondary -- there was nothing left behind it. Kentucky's defense regressed, and its offense vanished.
I saw this team in person when the Wildcats came to Missouri, and I was actually rather impressed with what Kentucky was trying to do tactically. It's just that the Wildcats didn't even remotely have the talent to pull off what they were trying to do.
|Q1 Rk||84||1st Down Rk||72|
|Q2 Rk||74||2nd Down Rk||108|
|Q3 Rk||88||3rd Down Rk||49|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Maxwell Smith||6'4, 232||So.||*** (5.5)||103||150||975||68.7%||8||4||5||3.2%||6.1|
|Jalen Whitlow||6'2, 208||So.||*** (5.5)||87||161||801||54.0%||3||2||15||8.5%||4.0|
|Patrick Towles||6'5, 234||So.||**** (5.8)||19||40||233||47.5%||1||1||4||9.1%||4.5|
4. Pick a sophomore quarterback … any sophomore quarterback ...
More than anything else, there's one specific reason why Kentucky's offensive production fell apart after three weeks: Maxwell Smith also got hurt after three weeks. He missed the Florida game, took a couple of snaps in the South Carolina game and was done for the season.
While his numbers weren't spectacular (6.1 yards per pass attempt is below average, even with a sparkling 69 percent completion rate), they were infinitely better than those of everybody else who took snaps in 2012. Senior Morgan Newton was such a good quarterback that the New York Giants just signed him as a tight end, and two true freshmen -- Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles -- just weren't ready for prime time.
This spring, there was no clear standout in the race to become Stoops' first starting quarterback. Neal Brown's offensive system puts a lot on the shoulders of the guy behind center, and Smith's ability to throw quick, accurate passes would seem to give him an edge, but Whitlow had the best spring game, and the competition is ongoing.
Jalen Whitlow. Andy Lyons, Getty.
|Raymond Sanders III||RB||5'8, 199||Sr.||*** (5.7)||125||669||5.4||5.5||5||+8.6|
|Jonathan George||RB||5'10, 221||Sr.||** (4.9)||108||504||4.7||4.7||4||+0.1|
|Jalen Whitlow||QB||6'2, 208||So.||*** (5.5)||53||301||5.7||4.1||3||+4.5|
|Dyshawn Mobley||RB||5'11, 216||So.||*** (5.6)||41||184||4.5||4.1||0||-0.9|
|Patrick Towles||QB||6'5, 234||So.||**** (5.8)||7||22||3.1||1.6||0||-1.3|
|Justin Taylor||RB||5'10, 217||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||5||20||4.0||5.1||0||-0.7|
|Jojo Kemp||RB||5'10, 190||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Khalid Thomas||RB||5'10, 175||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Demarco Robinson||WR||5'10, 159||Jr.||*** (5.6)||49||28||297||57.1%||6.1||13.4%||65.3%||5.9||35.4|
|Daryl Collins||WR||5'11, 205||So.||*** (5.6)||33||17||171||51.5%||5.2||9.0%||42.4%||4.6||20.4|
|Raymond Sanders III||RB||5'8, 199||Sr.||*** (5.7)||28||18||111||64.3%||4.0||7.7%||57.1%||4.1||13.2|
|Jonathan George||RB||5'10, 221||Sr.||** (4.9)||25||21||223||84.0%||8.9||6.8%||56.0%||9.0||26.6|
|Ronnie Shields||TE||6'5, 234||Jr.||** (5.4)||17||9||68||52.9%||4.0||4.7%||58.8%||4.0||8.1|
|Tyler Robinson||TE||6'3, 261||Sr.||** (5.4)||14||9||97||64.3%||6.9||3.8%||64.3%||6.9||11.6|
|A.J. Legree||WR||6'1, 188||So.||*** (5.6)||12||12||113||100.0%||9.4||3.3%||25.0%||10.8||13.5|
|DeMarcus Sweat||WR||6'1, 196||So.||*** (5.5)||9||4||84||44.4%||9.3||2.5%||77.8%||7.3||10.0|
|Javess Blue||WR||6'0, 190||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Steven Borden||TE||6'3, 250||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Ryan Timmons||WR||5'10, 185||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Alex Montgomery||WR||6'2, 210||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
5. Personnel vs. System
Neal Brown likes to pass. A lot.
With Brown as offensive coordinator in 2012, Texas Tech ran just 39 percent of the time on standard downs, the second-lowest percentage in the country behind Washington State. The Red Raiders ran just 26 percent of the time on passing downs as well, which was 104th. His hire is a fun nod to Kentucky's Air Raid days with head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach (now the head coach of the aforementioned Washington State Cougars), but it will be interesting to see how his play-calling meshes with the talent on hand.
Why? Because most of the talent on hand is at the running back position. Raymond Sanders III is shifty, explosive and a strong receiver out of the backfield. His backfield mates Jonathan George and Dyshawn Mobley also showed more potential than just about anybody at receiver for this team last year. Granted, the receivers were done no favors by their exploding Spinal Tap drummers* at quarterback, but drops were a constant issue, and yards after catch were minimal. Demarco Robinson had a 47-yard catch in the spring game, which is fine, but consider me a skeptic.
A Neal Brown offense has almost no choice but to be pretty efficient, but I don't see much explosiveness here.
* I love that reference, but I also make it too much. This will be the only time I use it in the 2013 previews. Hold me to that. I already regret not being able to use it to describe Maryland quarterbacks, Iowa running backs, or Missouri offensive linemen.
|Larry Warford||RG||37 career starts; 2012 2nd All-SEC|
|Matt Smith||C||34 career starts|
|Darrian Miller||LT||6'5, 288||Jr.||*** (5.7)||14 career starts|
|Kevin Mitchell||RT||6'6, 296||Sr.||** (5.4)||13 career starts|
|Zach West||LG||6'4, 312||So.||*** (5.7)||12 career starts|
|Teven Eatmon-Nared||LG||6'7, 339||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Max Godby||C||6'4, 291||Jr.||NR|
|John Gruenschlaeger||RG||6'11, 340||So.||NR|
|Jordan Swindle||LT||6'7, 299||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Zach Myers||C||6'3, 289||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Jordan Watson||OG||6'4, 322||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Kyle Meadows||OL||6'5, 270||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
6. Hope on the line
Perhaps the most frustrating part of Kentucky's offensive performance in 2012 was that it wasted a strong performance from an enormous line. Larry Warford earned second-team all-conference honors and a third-round selection by the Detroit Lions, and Kentucky ranked in the Adj. Line Yards top 25 (that their raw numbers were so bad and their schedule-adjusted numbers were so good is a nice reminder that the Wildcats play in the SEC). Warford and three-year starting center Matt Smith are gone, but there is hope here.
Okay, I don't actually know about hope here. But I do know about size. Players like Teven Eatmon-Nared, John Gruenschlaeger, and Jordan Swindle (average size among them: 6'8, 326) could play a role in the rotation. And hey, if your talent and experience are questionable, you might as well throw out some big bodies in the hopes that it takes defenders longer to run around them. And my goodness, do I want to see a 6'11 guard in action.
|Q1 Rk||99||1st Down Rk||46|
|Q2 Rk||74||2nd Down Rk||38|
|Q3 Rk||37||3rd Down Rk||120|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Donte Rumph||DT||6'3, 323||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||26.0||3.8%||6||4||0||0||1||0|
|Mister Cobble||DT||6'0, 340||Sr.||** (5.4)||10||22.5||3.3%||3||2||0||0||0||0|
|Tristian Johnson||DT||6'1, 277||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||17.0||2.5%||2.5||1.5||0||2||0||1|
|Mike Douglas||DT||6'4, 269||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||9.5||1.4%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Farrington Huguenin||DE||6'4, 269||So.||** (5.4)||12||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||0||1||1|
|Alvin Davis, Jr.||DE||6'4, 269||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||4.5||0.7%||1||1||0||1||0||0|
|TraVaughn Paschal||DE||6'4, 250||Jr.||NR||7||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Christian Coleman||DT||6'3, 295||Jr.||*** (5.5)||8||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Thomas Chapman||DT||6'4, 309||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Langston Newton||DE||6'4, 271||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Za'Darius Smith||DE||6'6, 250||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jason Hatcher||DE||6'3, 250||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Alvonte Bell||DE||6'5, 255||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Jacob Hyde||DT||6'2, 330||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
7. Hello, reinforcements
The SEC is known for, among other things, ridiculous defensive lines. In terms of Adj. Line Yards, the conference claimed seven of the top 16 spots in the rankings -- Alabama was No. 3, LSU No. 5, Florida No. 7, Missouri No. 9, Ole Miss No. 10, Texas A&M No. 11, Arkansas No. 16.
Kentucky, on the other hand, was awful up front. The Wildcats could rush the passer to a decent degree, but they got pushed around terribly against the run. Their No. 102 ranking in Adj. Line Yards was easily the worst in the SEC and was the sixth-worst among all BCS conference teams (fourth-worst among BCS teams not in the Big East).
Mark Stoops did as much as he could to rectify this deficiency in his first recruiting class. Two of his three four-star signees were defensive linemen, and another two were mid- to high-three stars. Add in a pair of interesting redshirt freshmen, and you've got some potential reinforcements for a line that needed a lot of it. Both starting ends must be replaced, but it is difficult to imagine some combination of newcomer Za'Darius Smith (who had a lovely spring), redshirt freshman Langston Newton and a freshman or two not combining to at least match the six sacks that Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham managed. And while tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble are both wonderfully named and enormous, they could get some help from players like Thomas Chapman.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Avery Williamson||MLB||6'1, 241||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||102.5||15.0%||4.5||3||1||4||2||1|
|Alvin Dupree||WLB||6'4, 254||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||72.5||10.6%||12.5||6.5||0||1||0||0|
|Miles Simpson||OLB||6'2, 228||Jr.||*** (5.6)||12||56.5||8.3%||1.5||1||0||4||0||1|
|Khalid Henderson||WLB||6'1, 224||So.||*** (5.5)||12||20.0||2.9%||0||0||0||1||0||1|
|Pancho Thomas||MLB||6'0, 225||So.||*** (5.6)||10||10.0||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Forrest||OLB||6'3, 241||So.||*** (5.6)||9||9.5||1.4%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kory Brown||OLB||6'0, 205||Jr.||*** (5.5)||8||7.5||1.1%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Malcom McDuffen||WLB||6'3, 220||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||6.0||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||1|
|Tyler Brause||MLB||6'4, 240||Jr.||*** (5.5)||9||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Demarius Rancifer||LB||6'2, 216||So.||*** (5.6)||11||0.5||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ashely Lowery||S||6'1, 219||Jr.||*** (5.6)||8||35.0||5.1%||1||0||1||1||0||0|
|Fred Tiller||CB||6'0, 170||So.||*** (5.6)||11||23.5||3.4%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Cody Quinn||CB||5'10, 177||So.||*** (5.5)||11||23.0||3.4%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|J.D. Harmon||CB||6'2, 191||So.||NR||12||20.5||3.0%||0||0||2||4||0||0|
|Daron Blaylock||S||6'1, 213||So.||*** (5.5)||11||11.5||1.7%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Zack Blaylock||S||6'0, 191||So.||*** (5.7)||11||11.5||1.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dakotah Tyler||S||5'11, 207||Sr.||*** (5.5)||5||9.5||1.4%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Eric Dixon||S||5'11, 189||Jr.||*** (5.6)||8||4.0||0.6%||1||1||0||0||1||0|
|Nate Willis||DB||6'0, 180||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Marcus McWilson||S||6'0, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Blake McCain||DB||5'11, 190||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Jaleel Hytchye||CB||5'10, 175||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. Yesterday's extreme youth is tomorrow's vast experience
That's the mantra for the back seven of Kentucky's defense. Last year, sophomores like Alvin Dupree, Miles Simpson, and Ashely Lowery and freshmen like Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn, J.D. Harmon, Khalid Henderson, and Pancho Thomas all got extensive playing time. If you're going to play that many ultra-young players, they better be five-star guys if you want to survive (especially if you have a porous line).
These weren't, but while this unit might still struggle quite a bit in 2013, all of these players will still have eligibility left in 2014, as will quite a few interesting incoming freshmen.
Alvin Dupree. John Sommers, Getty.
|Landon Foster||6'1, 206||So.||61||42.9||3||14||13||44.3%|
|Joe Mansour||6'2, 188||Sr.||28||59.0||12||42.9%|
|DeMarcus Sweat||KR||6'1, 196||So.||25||20.5||0|
|Raymond Sanders III||KR||5'8, 199||Sr.||10||22.3||0|
|Daryl Collins||KR||5'11, 205||So.||6||22.2||0|
|Demarco Robinson||PR||5'10, 159||Jr.||18||6.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||77|
|Field Goal Pct||119|
|Kick Returns Avg||72|
|Punt Returns Avg||79|
9. Landon Foster is a weapon
While the Kentucky offense will almost certainly improve, let's just say that punter Landon Foster, who boomed Kentucky into the Net Punting top 20 as a freshman, is still going to get pretty considerable use. He's pretty damn good, so that might not necessarily be a bad thing. If the Kentucky offense can at least score a few more first downs and fewer three-and-outs, that and Foster should combine to help the Wildcats win the field position advantage more often than they did in 2012. And hey man, punters are people, too ...
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|31-Aug||vs. Western Kentucky||94|
|5-Oct||at South Carolina||19|
|26-Oct||at Mississippi State||51|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||82|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||41|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-3 / +1.6|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (6, 7)|
10. Building for 2014
Let's put it this way: last year in the F/+ rankings, Kentucky ranked 54 spots behind anybody else in the SEC East. Of the 842 FBS teams who have played since 2006, only 28 of them improved by more than 50 spots in one year. Granted, almost half of FBS doesn't have a chance to improve by 50 spots in a given year. But if you remove the Top 50 from consideration, that still means that only about 5.6 percent of teams ranked 51st or worst in a given year improve by 50 spots (or in Kentucky's case, catch up to the rest of the division).
So the odds are very good that Kentucky will be the worst team in the East again, perhaps by a considerable margin. That the Wildcats drew Alabama from the West and host Louisville (which isn't projected nearly as high as conventional wisdom would suggest, but is still probably much better than Kentucky) makes this a rather brutal schedule, one that likely won't produce six wins.
When you fall apart to this degree, a quick fix almost certainly isn't going to happen. It will probably be another painful season in Lexington, but the combination of experience and improved recruiting might ensure that Kentucky becomes interesting as early as 2014.
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