2014 CFN Preview - Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky DE Alvin Dupree
Kentucky DE Alvin Dupree
Posted Jul 13, 2014

Preview 2014 - The rebuilding job is ongoing, but can Kentucky make a big move? (Getty Images)

Kentucky Wildcats

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak
- 2014 Kentucky Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Mark Stoops
2nd year: 2-10
Returning Lettermen
Off, 23, Def. 25, ST 3
Letterman Lost: 21
Ten Best Kentucky Players
1. DE Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Sr.
2. OT Darrian Miller, Sr.
3. DE Za'Darius Smith, Sr.
4. S Blake McClain, Soph.
5. S Eric Dixon, Sr.
6. QB Patrick Towles, Soph.
7. RB Jojo Kemp, Soph.
8. WR Javess Blue, Sr.
9. RB Braylon Heard, Jr.
10. OG Zach West, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 UT Martin
Sep. 6 Ohio
Sep. 13 at Florida
Sep. 27 Vanderbilt
Oct. 4 South Carolina
Oct. 11 ULM
Oct. 18 at LSU
Oct. 25 Miss State
Nov. 1 at Missouri
Nov. 8 Georgia
Nov. 15 at Tennessee
Nov. 29 at Louisville

Of course, Kentucky athletics focuses on basketball season first, recruiting for basketball season second, and the basketball offseason third, but as the attendance for the spring football game showed, things are starting to change. Is it really possible for football to at least share a piece of the bluegrass fun?

UK doesn’t have to look any further than down the road at Louisville for the example of how to the two major sports can both thrive. Hoops is obviously a big deal to the Cardinals, but the football program has been able to find its place, too. For Kentucky, it’ll be hard to take too much of the attention away as long as John Calipari is contuining to load up with teams full of NBA talent, but there’s a buzz and excitement about a football program that appears to be on its way up.

A second straight 2-10 season and fourth straight losing campaign might not seem like much, but big recruiting classes under head coach Mark Stoops, an enthusiastic fan base, and what seems like a real belief that things are starting to change appears to have energized everything around the football team. But now the wins have to follow, and unlike Louisville, Kentucky is in the SEC – it’s not like there are a slew of layups to build up the record.

It’s next to impossible to go from being a perennial free space to a player in the SEC without a whole bunch of talent, a lot of luck, and a few schedule breaks. Beating a decent-named team from time to time and going to average bowl games is nice, but Kentucky doesn’t want to be Vanderbilt.

If South Carolina can do it – remember, the Gamecock program won a lot of jack squat before Ball Coach took over – then Kentucky can, too.

Unlike the SEC’s USC, there actually is some history at Kentucky with Bear Bryant coming up a few great seasons including the fantastic 1950 campaign, and there were a few good years here and there, but with only 15 bowl appearances there’s room for Stoops to carve out his own legacy in a hurry. How mediocre has UK football been? The last season with fewer than four losses was 1984 going 9-3, and since going 10-1 in 1977 there have only been nine winning campaigns in 36 years.

To rise up and start to be a major part of the SEC fun, like a South Carolina, there has to be a few big recruiting hauls, a whopper of a class at some point that shocks the system, and a little bit of success to show that there’s a plan, it’s working, and the winning will follow.

To make that step this year, Stoops has to rely on the experience of 51 returning lettermen, 16 returning starters, a little bit of depth to play around with, and just enough interesting athletes and playmakers to catch some of the big boys napping.

The offense has to be more explosive and has to start figuring out how to put up points, the defense has to stop giving up so many big plays and has to learn how to get off the field, and the team has to start making its own breaks. There were chances in close losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State last year, and there can’t be losses like the Western Kentucky gaffe to kick things off, but this can’t be another 2-10 year with the wins coming against the truly sad.

Kentucky football has the potential to go on the upswing fast, and Stoops appears to be the right coach, but the basketball team is destined for yet another Final Four, at the absolute least. This isn't a football school quite yet.

What to watch for on offense: There really might be the running back options to start making the offense move. A disaster over the last few years when it came to scoring (more on that in a moment), the offense has to be more dangerous, has to come up with a stronger running game, and has to stretch the field a bit. The passing attack is a question - the receiving corps is shaky, but there’s hope with some young options and four interesting prospects at quarterback to play around with. The pressure should be taken off by a ground attack that gets back four starters up front and has a deep group of backs who can rotate in. With Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard ready to go, and leading rusher Jojo Kemp back, the backfield might be the team’s biggest strength. It has to be.

What to watch for on defense: The secondary has to try picking off a pass or two ... or four. Generating turnovers wasn’t a major problem with 15 recovered fumbles – generating two in six games – and the pass rush was okay, but the secondary failed to deliver. Fine, so eight of the 23 sacks came against Miami University and Alabama State, and there was next to no pressure at time behind the line, but the defensive backs still needed to come up with interceptions. How many did they get? Three, and two of them came in the final two games. Considering the Wildcats generated five in 2012, it was actually impressive to take a step back, but they did. All four starters are back in the secondary, and there’s athleticism and speed, but they have to come up with gamechangers.

The team will be far better if… the O can score. Everything was fine against a Miami University team that might have been the worst in America, and Alabama State from the lower levels, but it was like pulling teeth at times to generate points scoring 17 or fewer in seven of the 12 games. UK has scored 17 or fewer 15 times over the last two seasons – losing them all – and 26 times in the last 38 games going 2-24. Either the Wildcats have to learn how to battle through slugfests, or the offense has to put points on the board. To do that, it has to start converting on third downs to keep the offense moving, after succeeding a horrendous 31% of the time going 0-for-12 against Vandy and 2-of-13 against South Carolina.

The Schedule: There's a chance to get off to a hot start with UT Martin and Ohio in the first two weeks before going to Florida. On the plus side, the annual loss to Florida is the lone road trip before mid-October. However, the payback is coming in the second half of the season with road games at LSU, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville.

Overall, it's not that bad. Going to Louisville is the lone bear in non-conference play – unless Ohio rebounds and becomes a MAC star, or if ULM is quirky-good – and while Florida, LSU and Missouri are nasty road games, if Mark Stoops and the coaching staff can establish the home field advantage early on, there could and should be an upset or two against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Georgia or South Carolina.

Best offensive player: Senior OT Darrian Miller. The Wildcats desperately need one of their quarterbacks – Reese Phillips? Drew Barker? Patrick Towles? Maxwell Smith? – to become the team’s best player and main man to work around, and it would do wonders if one of the receivers could turn into a superstar, but it’s an offensive tackle who’s the best of the bunch. In his third season as the starting left tackle, he’s a strong run blocker with good enough athleticism to get by. He’s hardly a brick wall in pass protection, but he’s experienced, productive, and the star of a veteran line that could grow into a strength.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Alvin Dupree. “Bud” has been one of the team’s stars on defense over the last few years earning all-star honors in each of the last two seasons. His sack production has been steady, rising up at the end of 2012 and rolling through 2013, and working with Za’Darius Smith on the other side last season to give the Wildcats a formidable pass rushing tandem. With his size and burst he has next-level potential as a hybrid defender, but for now, he should be one of the SEC’s steadiest ends.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Patrick Towles. Jalen Whitlow took off for Eastern Illinois, but there are still four quarterbacks in the mix for the starting job. If one rocks in fall camp, he’ll be it, but it’s Towles who appears to have the line on the starting job after a good offseason. Maxwell Smith has all the tools and enough experience to be a big part of the race, but he needs to return healthy. Towles is a good passer who could be the type to build the offense around, but he’ll have to keep on pushing to get the gig. All that matters is being able to put points on the board – one of the UK quarterbacks has to be the reason the offense works.

The season will be a success if ... the Wildcats win five games. Remember, it’s not like they were that close to coming up with a winning season last year and just needed a few breaks – there’s still a ton of work needing to be done just to get close. UT Martin, Ohio and ULM are must wins, and coming up with the first SEC win since beating Ole Miss in early November of 2011 is a must, but the schedule overall isn’t that kind. Outside of – possibly – the home date with Vanderbilt, UK should be the underdog against everyone but the previous three must-wins, and getting to six wins would be fantastic, but a 5-7 season would be a very, very nice second year for Stoops.

Key game: Sept. 27 vs. Vanderbilt. Florida is a lot better – and likely healthier – this year, so the SEC opener isn’t going to be easy but with a week off to prepare, UK has to beat Vanderbilt for the first time since 2010 – losing three straight in the series. With South Carolina and LSU up next in conference play, it could be ugly if the Cats can’t pull this off, but if they can win, they could and should be 3-1 with several home games coming up.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Tackles For Loss: Opponents 88 – Kentucky 54
- Interceptions Thrown: Kentucky 6 – Opponents 3
- Time of Possession: Opponents 32:00 – Kentucky 28:00

- 2014 Kentucky Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players