An argument exists that Kentucky’s 2017 football schedule is less challenging than recent years; not me and here’s one reason why.
Opposing quarterback play will be vastly improved from a year ago. 2017 features ten “winnable” games that will showcase high-level, upgraded signal callers that can take over football games with both their arms and legs.
Against the following quarterbacks and their surrounding casts; a pass rush must be established for the Wildcats to experience the season that many are expecting. It is no secret that Kentucky has questions along the defensive line.
Let’s take a look:
At Southern Miss
Quarterback Keon Howard is a 6’0, 226-pound sophomore from Laurel, Mississippi. A quick look at his offer sheet shows that Louisville, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and others took significant interest in this highly athletic quarterback that threw for over 10,000-yards in high school. He also led Mississippi to an all-star game win over Alabama and led his team to a 5A state championship. While replacing long-time starter Nick Mullens will be a difficult chore, Howard started two games as a true freshman in which he was the team’s leading rusher with 98-yards against Old Dominion.
Howard’s supporting cast is excellent. Remember, strip the logo’s when analyzing personnel. RB Ito Smith returned for his senior season after rushing for 1459-yards and 17 touchdowns. Smith rushed for 173-yards against the Cats in 2016. The USM receiving corps is athletic and possesses choice size. It’s led by 6’2, 219-pound senior Allenzae Staggers who had 63 grabs a year ago. Joining Staggers are Korey Robertson (37 catches, 3 TD’s) and Isaiah Jones (20 catches, 2 TD’s).
Kentucky is favored by 13-points in its opener. However, Southern Miss’s offensive skill positions offer a more significant challenge than prognosticators are presenting in July.
At South Carolina
In 2016, true freshman (early enrollee) Jake Bentley completed 65.8% of his passes for 1420-yards and 9 touchdowns. Carolina averaged 14 points per game prior to Bentley taking over. It rolled up 31 points per game after.
The sophomore will also have 1st Team All SEC support from WR Deebo Samuel (59 catches, 783-yards) as well as TE Hayden Hurst’s 48 receptions. USC is projected to make noise in the SEC East; its strength is at quarterback and offensive skill players.
Redshirt freshman QB Feleipe Franks is penciled in as the Gator’s starter. A high school All American, Franks was considered as one of the country’s best pro-style quarterbacks coming out of Wakulla High School. Still on the roster is Luke Del Rio who shredded the Cats in the Swamp a year ago.
Let’s be honest, Florida’s 2016 offense struggled at was ranked 114th in the nation at one point in the season. Inconsistent quarterback play and injuries at the position significantly factored in the Gator’s inefficiencies. The offense returns nine starters including a pair of TE’s that could greatly benefit an inexperienced quarterback: DeAndre Goolsby (38 catches, 3 TD’s) and C’yontai Lewis. Leading rusher Jordan Scarlett (889-yards, 6 TD’s) and dangerous receivers Antonio Calloway (54 receptions, 3 TD’s) and Brandon Powell (45 catches, 2 TD’s) will help to ease the transition for a new quarterback.
How Franks performs against Michigan in the opener will provide an indicator of what to expect from the former 4-star prospect. Head coach Jim McElwain also brought in his third grad-transfer in former Notre Dame signal caller Malik Zaire. Zaire has experienced success at his former school. He was the MVP of the 2014 Music City Bowl after he rushed for 96 yards and a touchdown over LSU.
Quarterback Brogan Roback led the Eagles to its first bowl game since 1987. The senior threw for 2694-yards and 18 touchdowns and returns his top-two targets in Sergio Bailey (60 receptions, 7 TD’s), and Antoine Porter (44 catches, 4 TD’s). EMU returns 8 offensive starters which includes its leading rusher from 2016: Ian Eriksen (771-yards, 9 TD’s).
Drew Lock was the SEC’s leading passer a year ago. Lock completed 54.6% of his passes for 3399-yards and 23 touchdowns. The Tigers also return the league’s top receiver in J’Mon Moore (62 catches, 1012-yards, 8 TD’s), and 1000-yard rusher RB Damarea Crockett to go along with an upper-level offensive line. Summary; Mizzou will be a dangerous team that should be able to light up the scoreboard in 2017.
At Mississippi State
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for 1375-yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016. He also threw for 2423-yards and 21 scores. Fitzgerald lacks the supporting cast of the aforementioned quarterbacks but the Dogs return WR Donald Gray (41 receptions). But, he is elite and should be mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race.
Complete disclosure, I voted Fitzgerald as my 1st Team All SEC QB. Kentucky’s game in Starkville is extremely dangerous due to his dynamic ability to take over a football game.
Shea Patterson if often compared to Johnny Manziel. His improvisational skills are influential and places a tremendous amount of pressure on opposing defenses. Forced into late, true freshman action a year ago; Patterson completed 72 passes for 880-yards and 6 touchdowns.
The sophomore will be surrounded by arguably the best group of receivers that Kentucky will face in 2017: Van Jefferson (49 receptions, 3 TD’s), AJ Brown (29 catches), and DK Metcalf.
First of all, Kentucky has to travel to Nashville for this game. Secondly, QB Kyle Shurmer threw for 2409-yards and 9 touchdowns in 2016. His notable, late-season improvement led the Commodores to become bowl eligible. Shurmer will benefit from nine returning offensive starters including RB Ralph Webb (1283-yards, 13 TD’s) and a pair of solid receivers in CJ Duncan (44 catches) and Trent Sherfield (34 receptions, 1 TD).
The BBN got a glimpse of the Dawg’s future as Jacob Eason methodically led his team to a late, game winning field goal drive in Kroger Field. Eason’s true freshman season has to be considered as success: 204/370, 2430-yards, 16 touchdowns.
Eason has the enviable task of handing the football off to elite running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. In addition, he has two upper-shelf tight ends in Isaac Nauta (29 receptions, 3 TD’s) and Jeb Blazevich. UGA is the most talented team in the East but must replace three starters from an offensive line that struggled in 2016. Eason doesn’t have an elite, go-to receiver which could increase reliance on the running game and short to intermediate passing game with the TE’s.
Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will travel to Kroger Field with vengeance on his mind following a late fumble in the 2016 Governor’s Cup. Jackson wowed all of America in the Cardinal’s first ten games of the season as it averaged 49 points per game. However, UofL dropped to 19 points per game in its final three contests against Houston, Kentucky, and LSU.
Jackson rushed for 1571-yards and 21 scores in 2016. He passed for 3543-yards and 30 touchdowns. Eye-popping numbers, but his offense only returns four starters. Thus, Jackson’s supporting cast is difficult to evaluate and is mostly projection.
Enthusiasm is appropriately high in anticipation for the Kentucky football season. However, it must be noted that opponents will also be improved, especially at the quarterback position.