After an offseason that seemed to last decades, it’s finally here. Kentucky reported to fall camp with hopes of postseason football. Quarterback Drew Barker’s preseason actions, words, and play will be dissected by all concerned hacks. I will eventually join this posse but for now here are five pressing questions for the 2016 Wildcats:
To what extent will line-of-scrimmage play improve?
-- UK’s defense produced 17 QB sacks and 53 tackles for loss in 2015. There is no reason to continue questions two through five if these numbers are not exponentially increased.
-- Last season’s offense surrendered 30 QB sacks and 84 tackles for loss. See above. If this number isn’t lowered, then questions two through five are irrelevant.
-- Just how are line-of-scrimmage inefficiencies remedied? The SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league. Period. For starters Eddie Gran will stray from last season’s emphasis on 7 step drop back passes and a hopeless borage of deep vertical routes. Shannon Dawson’s concept inconceivably placed struggling offensive tackles all alone blocking on an island. Kentucky will play to its strengths which includes running back and the offensive line’s interior players. 2015 still leaves me scratching my head in wonderment. Why didn’t Boom Williams get more carries? Why did UK abandon the running game in the red zone? Kentucky finally has a two-deep offensive line. This has taken time.
Defense is another issue. Personnel wise, the Cats have to replenish the majority of its front seven. A recent picture of Matt Elam showed significant weight loss. With his reduced belt size needs to come increased production. Defensive ends Courtney Miggins, Alvonte Bell, and Kengera Daniel will be called upon to pressure opposing quarterbacks. DE effectiveness and increased disruptiveness cannot be overstated. Defensive tackle Regie Meant’s absence from the training room is paramount. Behind Meant lies a bunch of inexperience and more question marks.
Is Drew Barker ready?
-- For Kentucky to go bowling Drew Barker doesn’t have to be great. For Kentucky to play past Thanksgiving, Drew Barker has to be good.
-Talk from the new training facility surrounds Barker’s maturity both on and off the field. After interviewing the 17/18-year-old quarterback years back and then doing so following the spring game, I can attest to his development. Now it’s time for his progress to translate to the practice and game field.
-I don’t believe in the term “Gamer”. Never have. However, there are some athletes that seem to brighten up once the lights come on. From all accounts, gamer accurately describes Drew Barker. That’s fine and all but for him to be “good” he has to learn to practice consistently and with intent. There is very little random luck in a football game. He’s got to manage his propensity for risky “courage throws” and complete high completion passes. The term game manager gets a bad rap.
How quickly will an inexperienced linebacker corps develop?
-- Courtney Love has been tremendous. He represented the university with class at SEC Media Days. He’s been on posters, modeled uniforms at the Women’s Clinic, and been designated as a mandatory interview. During camp and this fall Love has to be as polished and dynamic on the field as he is off. Partnered with sophomore Jordan Jones, with all the inexperience in the front-3 the pair will act as defensive traffic cops in the early onset of camp. Courtney Love has to lead the defense, locker room, and linebackers.
-- Denzil Ware impressed in the spring game as the BBN saw flashes that were promised when recruiting the four-star defender. He and Josh Allen possess athleticism and big play capability. That’s great, but much like Barker on offense the duo needs to work on making routine tackles. Following the Bud Dupree era, missed tackles from the outside linebacker position have plagued. DJ Eliot is now coaching the outside backers. This can only help.
-- Di’Niro Laster will play an enormous role. With the ability to play all four linebacker positions, Laster brings experience, diversity, and size. Depth at both inside and outside linebacker is the preeminent factor to keep your eyes on during camp. Eli Brown, Kash Daniel, Kobie Walker, and others will need to be game ready on September 3rd.
Will the Cats pitch and catch?
-- Drops kill drives. Drops also corrupt a locker room. Blame displacement between receivers and quarterbacks can lead to a toxic combination. Receiver coach Lamar Thomas has owned talking season. It’s now time for his protÃ©gÃ©s to do the job on the football field. Talent has never been questioned. Lack of production and inconsistency best describe the UK pass catchers from 2015.
-- In order for passes to be caught, the quarterback has to throw a catchable ball. Sounds easy enough right? For this to happen, Barker has to complete the completables. High percentage passes must become automatic completions. This extends drives and lessens pressure on the defense and special teams.
-- All of this is null and void if and when protection breaks down. Drew Barker will be significantly better simply because his surrounding cast is much improved from a talent and experience perspective. Again; Drew only has to be good, not great.
Can Matt House make Special Teams special?
-- In a league like the SEC, incompetent special teams play is a sure-fire precursor for a December equipment turn-in. On far too many occasions the kicking game failed in 2015. Short, incorrectly aimed punts with little to no hang time didn’t give coverage teams sufficient time to execute their duties. It’s not been discussed enough, but punters Brian Kirshe or Grant McKinniss’ role on this team will be vital. Last season UK finished last in the SEC with a punting average of 39.60 yards per kick.
-- A healthy Austin MacGinnis can make any special team’s coach look like a million dollars. All SEC as a freshman, MacGinnis struggled through an injury a year ago. His unhealthiness significantly led to a Cat’s 5-7 record. To kick a field goal or not is a head coach’s decision. Having an accurate kicker like MacGinnis can whittle away at leads or help salt a win. In addition, opposing field position didn’t do the defense any favors a year ago. Kickoffs that reach the end-zone are a defensive coordinator’s friend. Last season Kentucky kickoffs led to touchbacks only 25.81% of the time. Not good.
-- Sihiem King showed flashes of becoming a dynamic kick returner. Charles Walker managed punt return duties. It’s been far too long since a Wildcat has taken a kick/punt to the house. Kentucky is now talented enough to identify game breakers in the return game. This has to happen.