Post Governor’s Cup and pre-Jacksonville talk featured bowl excitement and expectation for the 2017 season. If the Georgia Tech game’s depth chart happened to be a crystal ball, it would have flashed a promising future. The Wildcat offense was believed to begin its next season with ten returning starters to go along with nine on defense. 19 returning starters had prognosticators operating within a new-found sense of expectation.
That was nine months and several personnel actions ago. Kentucky is now down to six offensive and eight defensive starters from the team that squared off against Tech on New Year’s Eve. Concerned yet? I’m not. Let’s take a deeper look:
Taxslayer Bowl Starters
Left Tackle-Cole Mosier
Left Guard-Nick Haynes
Right Guard-Bunchy Stallings
Right Tackle-Kyle Meadows
Tight End-CJ Conrad
Tight End-Greg Hart
Running Back-Stanley Williams
Bowl game notes from the team’s official website show that Kentucky was to return ten starters with center Jon Toth being the only player lost to graduation. Since then; LT Cole Mosier was lost for the season to a knee injury, Jeff Badet left the team and eventually transferred to Oklahoma, Dorian Baker is now questionable due to an ankle injury (Update comes on Monday), and Stanley Williams surprisingly entered the NFL Draft. The Cats are now down to six returning offensive starters. Concerned yet? Not me.
-WR Josh Ali-6’0, 180-pounds. Ali was a 3-star prospect by all major services. Caught 43 passes for 805-yards and 4 touchdowns at Chaminade-Madonna HS which is located in Florida.
-WR Isaiah Epps-6’2, 185-pounds. Played a national powerhouse program Jenks HS in Oklahoma where he set a school record with 59 catches for 1,209-yards and 12 touchdowns.
-WR Lynn Bowden-6’1, 190-pounder from Youngstown, Ohio was considered one of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation coming out of high school. 4-star prospect in all major recruiting services.
-WR Clevan Thomas-5’11, 205-pounds from Florida’s Charles W. Flanagain HS. Rated as one of the nation’s top receivers, helped his team win the 8A state championship as a junior.
-RB Bryant Koback-6’0, 193-pounder from Holland, Ohio was set to have a standout senior season before suffering an injury. Koback rushed for 1096-yards and 21 TD’s in a 4-game, shortened senior campaign.
-LT Naasir Watkins-6’6, 300-pound former TE that played at national powerhouse Our Lady of Good Counsel HS, Maryland. Watkins was a 3-star prospect chose UK over Coastal Carolina, Bowling Green, Ohio, and Dartmouth.
A foursome of true freshmen receivers was projected to play prior to the Dorian Baker situation. Now, it’ all but certain that they’ll make the trip and contribute in Hattiesburg. This group includes: Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps, Lynn Bowden, and Clevan Thomas. JaVonte Richardson is the 5th receiver in the class and was a 4-star coming out of high school. However, Lamar Thomas has an overabundance of taller, X wide-outs at his disposal. Richardson may redshirt.
Mark Stoops has said that tackle Naasir Watkins is ahead of Landon Young at the same stage in their careers. Watkins has the makings of a special left tackle in the Southeastern Conference. RB Bryant Koback participated in the team’s latest live-scrimmage and could provide depth at the position. Remember, it takes four running backs to survive a season.
All offensive linemen signed and developed by John Schlarman should have a “slash” in their position descriptions. The UK OL coach had cross-trained his big fellas to play multiple positions along the line-of-scrimmage. This should pay dividends on the recruiting trail as multiplicity is a highly sought after trait by the National Football League. This includes a duo of redshirt freshmen in center/guard Drake Jackson and center/guard/tackle Luke Fortner who should be in its two-deep rotation.
Taxslayer Bowl Starters
Outside Linebacker-Josh Allen
Defensive Tackle-Adrian Middleton
Defensive End-Alvonte Bell
Defensive End-Courtney Miggins
Outside Linebacker-Denzil Ware
DE Alvonte Bell was dismissed from the team. I could be proven wrong about the seriousness of the Bell situation. Unlike some talking heads (and I have a huge head) when I’m wrong I admit it. I was seriously concerned after learning that UK had lost an impactful, proven pass rusher from a questionable defensive line. I still think Bell’s absence will sting, but fall camp has brought on an onslaught of positive news surrounding the UK defensive line along with a group of highly promising true freshmen edge rushers.
Mark Stoops’ and Matt House’s faces light up when discussing true freshmen Josh Paschal and Quinten Bohanna. Same can be said of fellow novices Jordan Wright and Phil Hoskins. Add in redshirt freshmen Jamar “Boogie Watson and Kordell Looney, and the surge of new front-seven talent has me not as anxious as I was a couple months ago. I still think that Chris Whittaker, Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Alex King will be just as impactful once the situation presents itself.
The Class of 2017 has a chance to be a doozy. It could prove to be the best to ever ink with the Wildcats. Mark Stoops and Matt House said on Saturday that football means a great deal to this group of true freshmen. I like that, no I love that statement. Although not a measurable event and is often times overlooked by recruiting services; passion for the game is as important as vertical jumps and 40-times in the recruiting process. The old saying stands true today, “Can’t measure heart.’
But be advised; we’re talking about freshmen. After throwing a high number of interceptions throughout my playing career, it must be noted that I have a substantial higher number of career tackles than all of the abovementioned rookies. I’d join Mark Stoops in forewarning the Big Blue Nation to not get caught up in overhyping the freshmen. It’s all projection until the Class of 2017 experiences their first game-action.
-NT Quinten Bohanna-6’4, 320-pounds. The nose tackle was a 3-star prospect and racked up 91 total tackles, 24 tackles for loss, and 19 QB sacks as a senior.
-DT Phil Hoskins-6’5, 280-pounds. Hoskins is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Attended junior college at Highlands CC but has three years of eligibility remaining at UK. Has an 84-inch wingspan.
-OLB Jordan Wright-6’5, 250-pounds. Wright was an all-state football and basketball player at Florida’s Dillard HS. Registered 25 QB sacks as a senior. Caught 6 touchdowns as tight end.
-OLB Josh Paschal-6’3, 270-pounds. Teammate of OT Naasir Watkins, Paschal played for legendary coach Bill Milloy. 4-star prospect. 247Sports rated him as the nation’s 11st best SDE.
-MLB Jamin Davis-6’4, 220-pounds. Davis was an early enrollee and took full advantage of the offseason by leading the team in tackles during the spring game. Rated as one of the top 50 LB’s in America coming out of Long County HS. Chose UK over Louisville, Georgia Tech, and NC State.
What does all this mean?
Experience and an extraordinarily high number of returning starters were to be the way-too-easy storylines of the 2017 Kentucky Wildcats. But, a highly skilled and prudently focused collection of newcomers have stolen the show. Will that carry over to the season? Not necessarily as the vast majority of production will come from veterans. But, after writing and reading a multitude of stories that fixated on a small number of veteran’s focus or lack thereof; rookie eagerness has certainly been a welcome and refreshing alteration to fall camp rhetoric.