Gunnar Hoak (Vicky Graff Photo)
By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
It’s that time of year again. Time for SEC Football Media Days. This year the setting for Media Days is Atlanta, Georgia. There should be plenty of talk about the SEC West and which team can knock Alabama out of their perennial catbird seat. There should also be plenty of discussion about the SEC East and which team can emerge on top at the end of the season. Most prognosticators are picking Georgia to be the top Dawg this year but a few have mentioned Florida and South Carolina as potential winners with Tennessee and their first year coach Jeremy Pruitt along with the Drew Lock-led Missouri Tigers as dark horses. No one is picking either UK or Vanderbilt to even be in the race. Here’s three reasons why I believe UK will be a challenger this year.
Reason No. 1: Experience. UK returns 17 starters from last season. That ranks near the top of all teams in the SEC. The defense this year should be stacked with players that have been in the system for three or four years. Yes, the transfer of linebacker Denzil Ware hurts but Mark Stoops does have a good crop of linebackers to step into the gap. On offense the Wildcats return an experienced line anchored by sophomore center Drake Jackson that also includes CJ Conrad, one of the best tight ends in college football. With a great stable of running backs in Benny Snell, Jr., AJ Rose and Sihiem King UK will have experienced players across the board. Although QB Stephen Johnson has graduated the cupboard is not bare. Eddie Gran will be able to go with either a dual-threat type guy in Terry Wilson or more of a pure passer in Gunnar Hoak. Either player should be able to get the job done.
Reason No. 2: UK runs an offensive scheme tailored to win in the SEC
Anyone that knows football knows that a team has to be able to consistently run the ball to win in the SEC. The Wildcats are set up to do just that. With Benny Snell, Jr. running as the featured back behind a line that will have talented, experienced players at each position – along with very capable backups – and a great tight end in CJ Conrad UK should be set up to control the ball on offense and force the defense to stop the run. With either Terry Wilson or Gunnar Hoak – both capable passers – and an experienced and talented Lynn Bowden lining up all over the field the Kentucky offense should prove to be a fairly formidable weapon in the SEC East.
On offense the Wildcats return one of the best running backs in the nation in Benny Snell, Jr. Along with Snell at running back are senior Sihiem King and sophomore AJ Rose. Based on his accomplishments in the spring game look for AJ Rose to have a breakout year in the SEC. Rose should be able to add some additional breakaway speed to the backfield and based on what we saw in the spring he appears to have worked on becoming more of a north-south runner in the offseason. Throw in a big, strong senior wideout in Dorian Baker – back from a season ending injury in 2017 – and speedy Tavin Richardson and Isaiah Epps along with Bowden in the slot makes a fairly formidable wide receiver core if they live up to expectations.
Ball control will be the name of the game but don’t be surprised to see Gran dial up some vertical routes to Richardson or Epps if the defense starts to stack the box against the run game.
Reason No. 3: No expectations. This is the first year in awhile that Kentucky has had a talented, experienced team taking the field for their opening game. Most prognosticators are looking at UK with a “glass half empty” approach. They say, “extremely tough schedule, no experienced quarterback and a defense that could not stop the run last year.” All those are true but to me the positives of experienced, talented players at most positions, All-American type players in Benny Snell, CJ Conrad and Josh Allen along with guys that could have breakout years like Lynn Bowden, AJ Rose, Josh Pascal and the entire UK secondary makes the “glass half full” scenario much more likely. If you throw in some wildcard players like Jordan Jones, Kash Daniel and Jamar “Boogie” Watson on defense and some newcomers like Benny Snell lookalike running back Chris Rodriguez and a speedy and elusive player like Terry Wilson at quarterback you could have the makings of a team that no one wants to play in October and November.
The bottom line is that no one knows how this team will perform in the season opener against Central Michigan on September 1st. If they perform well they could pull an upset against new head coach Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators in week two. That would allow all the pieces to start to come together and allow this team to gain some momentum and play their best football from weeks four through twelve.
If they do – when the leaves start to change in late October – they could be right in the thick of the battle for the SEC East crown.