SEC: Alvin Dupree

Planning for success: Kentucky

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
There was no point in denying it, so Mark Stoops came right out and admitted he is anxious to see his Kentucky Wildcats play Florida on Saturday.

"Yeah, it's a measuring stick for us," he said during his weekly news conference on Monday.

It would be easy to say that Stoops is playing with house money now that his Cats are 2-0 for the first time since 2011 and have already matched their win total from last season.

[+] EnlargePatrick Towles
AP Photo/Garry JonesPatrick Towles' passing has Kentucky pumped to play SEC rival Florida on Saturday.
The second-year coach has energized the UK fan base with an exciting offense and two first-half shutouts on defense this season. And, Stoops has maintained the recruiting momentum he generated last year.

These are all rare accomplishments in the Bluegrass State. But beating Florida? Well, that would be historic.

The Wildcats haven't done it since 1986, back when a gallon of regular gasoline cost 89 cents, postage stamps were 22 cents, and a dozen eggs cost 87 cents.

Kentucky has lost 27 consecutive games to Florida, the FBS' longest active streak in an annual series.

None of the players in Saturday's game were alive the last time UK beat UF, so naturally both coaches are downplaying the streak as any sort of factor.

"I really don't think we need that motivation," Stoops said. "If it does to some individual players, that's fine. I'll let them read that, but it's not something I want to put in front of them.

"We're pretty motivated to get out there and play well and to try to get a win."

Said Florida's Will Muschamp on Monday: "It’s a 2014 Florida team versus a 2014 Kentucky team, and that’s all it is to me."

To the Wildcats players, Saturday's game against the Gators is a prime-time chance to measure their progress against SEC competition.

Senior defensive end Alvin Dupree said back in July that he expected Kentucky to be unbeaten going into its Week 3 matchup.

"It will be a great opportunity for us to start telling people, 'Wake up, Kentucky is knocking on the door now,'" he said. "[Florida] is a great program. But it really doesn't matter if it was South Carolina the first game or LSU. Whoever we have the first SEC game, I really want to win -- not just from a team standpoint but for the whole program.

"To win an SEC game, something we haven't done in two years, would be tremendous. It would be a stepping stone for the rest of the schedule."

And a stepping stone for the program.

With a very young roster, Stoops is looking forward to the trip and the challenge of playing in the Swamp in front of 90,000 fans and an SEC Network audience.

"It's a great venue, obviously one of the best venues in college football," he said. "You'll probably hear me say that every road game in the SEC. But it's a great place, a great atmosphere. Very passionate fan base.

"It will be a real challenge. It's certainly not easy. It will be really good for us to see where we're at."

In describing the importance of the game, those were the words Stoops used over and over: We'll see where we're at.

Sure, Kentucky's first two home games were satisfying for the players and fans. Sure, the running backs have totaled 466 yards this season, and QB Patrick Towles has passed for 547 yards thus far. Sure, they outscored their opponents by a combined 79-17. But those numbers came against Tennessee-Martin and Ohio.

"We all know we're in for a higher level of competition," Stoops said of the looming Florida test. "We're excited about that. The players will be excited, the coaches, so we'll see where we're at this week."

So will the rest of the SEC.

Kentucky Wildcats season preview

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Kentucky Wildcats:

2013 record: 2-10

Final grade for 2013 season: Can you blame Kentucky for the season it had? The Wildcats never found a quarterback, lacked playmakers on offense, and the secondary had to replace three starters from a team that finished 2-10 the previous season. Still, an SEC win would’ve been nice. It’s now been three years since Kentucky last won a conference game. But the 2013 team showed more fight under Mark Stoops, so for that we give them a D-plus, rather than a D.

Key losses: QB Jalen Whitlow, RB Raymond Sanders, OG Kevin Mitchell, DT Donte Rumph, DT Tristian Thompson, LB Avery Williamson

Key returnees: RB Jojo Kemp; WR Javess Blue; OT Darrian Miller; OT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin 'Bud" Dupree; DE Za’Darius Smith; LB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain

[+] EnlargeZa'Darius Smith
Jeff Moreland/Icon SMIZa'Darius Smith and Kentucky are aiming to win their first SEC game since 2011.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Patrick Towles; RB Jojo Kemp; FB D.J. Warren; WR Javess Blue; WR Ryan Timmons; TE Steven Borden; LT Darrian Miller; LG Zach West; C Jon Toth; RG Ramsey Meyers; RT Jordan Swindle; DE Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree; DT Mike Douglas; DT Melvin Lewis; DE Za’Darius Smith; MLB Josh Forrest; WLB Khalid Henderson; Nickel Blake McClain; CB Fred Tiller; S A.J. Stamps; S Ashely Lowery; CB Cody Quinn

Instant-impact newcomers: QB Drew Barker, RB Braylon Heard, WR Garrett Johnson, DT Cory Johnson, DT Matt Elam, LB Ryan Flannigan, S A.J. Stamps

Breakout player: Forget the Air Raid attack. The strength of this Kentucky team is at running back, and the Wildcats have a handful of good ones. Kemp might start the season opener because of his experience from last year and his performance in the spring game, but don’t be surprised if Heard tallies more carries by the end of the season and has a bigger impact on this team. He transferred from Nebraska in search of carries, and he’ll get them in Lexington. As a Cornhusker, he rushed for 462 yards in two seasons, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Most important game: Vanderbilt isn’t going to move the needle like a South Carolina, a Georgia or even a Louisville, but Kentucky’s date with the Commodores on Sept. 27 is huge. It’s the Wildcats’ best chance to win an SEC game. The more the conference losses keep piling up, the more pressure there is to win one. Why not get it out of the way early? Not to mention, Vandy has won three straight in the series.

Biggest question mark: Who’s going to be the quarterback? The coaching staff was hoping for a quick resolution, but we’re a week into fall camp and still no word. Maxwell Smith has the most experience, starting four games each of the past two seasons, but Kentucky might be looking to go in a different direction with either Towles or Barker, a pair of former four-star recruits from the Bluegrass State. Towles has been on campus longer, but Barker is the future. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is also in the mix ... for now, but don’t expect Stoops to wait much longer before he makes a decision.

Upset special: The players have already circled the SEC opener at Florida, but there’s a better chance Kentucky takes down South Carolina at home three weeks later. If you recall, the Wildcats went to Columbia last year and played maybe their best game of the season, losing 35-28. The Gamecocks will be playing their fourth conference game in as many weeks, leaving them vulnerable to a potential upset, and if Kentucky knocks off Vanderbilt the week before, the pressure will be off and momentum will be on its side.

Key stat: Kentucky had just three interceptions in 2013. The Wildcats were not only last in the SEC, they were tied with Temple and Utah for last among all 125 FBS teams.

They said it: “A lot of people are sleeping on us. They have reason to -- we won four games the last two years. How can somebody win four games and play in the SEC? We had a lot of chances to put guys on their deathbed, but we really didn’t step on their throat like we should have and then twist the knife. We had a lot of chances, but we didn’t [do it]. Hopefully this year we will capitalize on everything and the chances we have to win games, we will twist the knife and step on their throat.” -- defensive end Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 5.5 wins

Bovada over-under: 3.5 wins

Our take: The schedule actually sets up nicely for Kentucky. Assuming wins over UT-Martin, Ohio and Louisiana-Monroe, the Wildcats could have four, maybe even five wins by the middle of October. That would be a major improvement for a team that has a total of four wins the past two seasons. The only problem is the second half of the schedule is much more rigorous, so it’s important Kentucky gets off to a fast start. Best-case scenario is probably six wins and a bowl game, but more realistically this team is looking at five wins in 2014. The program is moving in the right direction under Stoops, but it’s still a year away.
HOOVER, Ala. -- The fourth and final day of SEC media days will likely be a circus with Alabama coming through, but there will be no shortage of storylines on all four teams in attendance Thursday. Let's take a look.

Georgia (10 a.m. ET): The expectations are high for this team, but if you ask Mark Richt who he has left in the secondary, it might take him a minute to respond. Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were both dismissed from the team, and Shaquille Wiggins transferred away from the program. That leaves the Bulldogs extremely thin on the back end, but star linebacker Ramik Wilson, who will be on hand Thursday, is back for another season. Wilson led the SEC last season with 133 tackles. On offense, it's all about Todd Gurley. If he's healthy, he's one of the best running backs in college football. However, Aaron Murray is no longer there, which means it's now up to Hutson Mason to take the reigns at quarterback. Between questions about the dismissals and questions about Mason, Richt will be plenty busy Thursday.

Ole Miss (10:30 a.m.): Are the Rebels ready to take that next step? Hugh Freeze surprised everybody, including himself, when he led his team to a bowl game in his first season, and he was able to duplicate that success last year. But with veteran quarterback Bo Wallace returning and 10 starters back on defense, a bowl game might not be good enough this season. They have the talent and experience to compete in a stacked SEC West. The other major talking point for Thursday will be the sensational freshman class from a year ago. The likes of Tony Conner, Evan Engram, Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil are all a year older, which is good news for Ole Miss fans but bad news for opponents. Treadwell, in particular, could be in line for a huge season with Donte Moncrief now in the NFL.

Alabama (12:10 p.m.): This edition of SEC media days will have a different feel for Alabama if for no other reason than the Crimson Tide aren't defending national champs for the first time in a while. How will the team respond to losing back-to-back games to end last season? And, maybe more important, how will it deal with the manner it lost to Auburn, falling to its bitter rival in the most dramatic way possible? Alabama coach Nick Saban will no doubt have an eye toward the future and the redemption it holds. But first he'll have to answer questions about a rebuilt secondary, two new starters on the offensive line, and the biggest question mark of all -- quarterback. It's safe to assume the starting job is Jacob Coker's. Just don't be surprised when Saban scoffs at the assumption.

Kentucky (1:40 p.m.): Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. If you're looking for a main storyline to follow with the Wildcats on Thursday, it's how well Mark Stoops and his staff have done on the recruiting trail and how that's beginning to pay dividends on the football field. The top-to-bottom talent isn't quite there to compete with the upper echelon of the SEC yet, but it's on the right path. And maybe with a few surprise players and a break here or there, Kentucky might play the role of spoiler in 2014. Za'Darius Smith and Alvin Dupree are two of the more underrated defensive players in the league, and Jojo Kemp and Javess Blue are two similarly under-the-radar playmakers on offense. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard could provide some much needed depth at tailback, and Drew Barker has the skill set to play immediately at quarterback as a true freshman. But how will Stoops put all those pieces together? His program is improving with each recruiting class, but it needs time to mature.
We continue our "most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Kentucky.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at Florida

Key players: All eyes will be on the Kentucky quarterback ... whoever that might be. Mark Stoops and his staff have yet to name a starter, but sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are the favorites heading into fall camp. Neither took a snap last season, but they are both going to have to grow up quickly with a trip to the Swamp looming in Week 3. It will be a good barometer, not only for this Wildcats team but also for the quarterback position which holds the key to success this season.

If Towles and/or Barker struggle on the road, it’s up to the defense to keep Kentucky in the game. The good news is that if there’s one strength on this team, it’s the defensive line. Ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks last season, and though they lost two seniors in the middle, 350-pound freshman Matt Elam has arrived to fill the void at defensive tackle. Florida’s offense was down right ugly at times last season, so it’s not a stretch to say this could end up being a low-scoring contest.

It might come down to one big play, and Kentucky has one of the league’s top home-run hitters in running back Jojo Kemp. If he gets loose, watch out.

Why it matters: Year 1 didn’t go as planned for Stoops. Kentucky finished 2-10, and the team seemed to play worse and worse as the season progressed. The setback hasn’t deterred him or his players, though. They still believe a turnaround is imminent.

“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said prior to spring practice. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple games in the non-conference schedule, and then against Florida, I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”

A win against Florida would do just that. The Wildcats haven’t beaten the Gators since 1986 and haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979. That is 27 straight losses. And it will be on the players’ mind leading up to kickoff. If they are looking for a statement win to help turn the program around, this is a prime opportunity.

Knock off Florida and there is a chance Kentucky starts the season 5-1 or even 6-0. At that point, we’re talking bowl game for the first time since 2010. However, a loss to the Gators, and the season could just as easily go in the other direction.
In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. Usually it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen, but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Kentucky

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Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRyan Timmons had a productive freshman season and is set to explode in 2014.
Class recap: The Kentucky job has never been thought of as a dream job because it’s a basketball school, not a football school. The Wildcats signed only four four-stars from 2010 to 2012, and the 2013 class was headed down the same path. That was until Mark Stoops arrived. Stoops didn’t buy that ‘basketball school’ talk, and it didn’t take long for him to rejuvenate the program. He signed 23 players in his first class, including six four-stars. He flipped in-state star Jason Hatcher from his USC commitment and landed defensive end Za'Darius Smith, the No. 13 junior college player in the nation. When the ink was dry, the class was ranked No. 36.

Second-year star: WR Ryan Timmons (5-foot-10, 193 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Timmons, a Kentucky native, was one of two ESPN 300 signees in the 2013 class. The four-star athlete had offers from Arkansas, Florida and Ohio State, among others, but chose to stay home and play for the Wildcats.

2013 in review: Timmons did a little bit of everything for Kentucky in 2013. He played in all 12 games, making six starts. He was second on the team in receiving with 32 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 91 yards on 12 carries. He finished with a career-high six catches against Florida, but his best game came in October against Mississippi State, when he had five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown.

2014 potential: It came as no surprise that Timmons made the impact that he did last season. He was the first major recruit to jump on board after Stoops was hired, and he was one of the best all-around players in the class. But even more will be expected of him in 2014 as was evident in April’s spring game, where he caught five passes for 47 yards, rushed once for eight yards and served as the team’s No. 1 punt returner. He and Javess Blue, a junior college transfer from the 2013 class, are the top two wide receivers, and how they perform will be vital to the Wildcats’ passing game, regardless of who’s throwing them the ball.

Also watch out for: Running back Jojo Kemp was the star of the spring game with 131 total yards of offense. He and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard are expected to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the backfield. Hatcher is stuck behind Smith and All-SEC star Alvin Dupree on the defensive line, but he’s too good to keep off the field. He finished with 20 tackles, three for a loss, and two sacks last season. As a freshman, Blake McClain was third on the team with 59 tackles. He’s in line to start again this fall and will be a key piece in the secondary. Redshirt freshman Reese Phillips is still in the mix for the starting quarterback job, though he’s currently behind Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, and cornerback Jaleel Hytchye is moving up the depth chart after a solid spring. He had 4.5 tackles and two pass break-ups in the spring game.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
Alvin Dupree has seen the difference in the last year and a half since Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky.

“It feels like a football school,” the veteran defensive end told on Tuesday. “We’re becoming that much more of a football school and not just a basketball school. Coach Stoops has done everything to change the culture around.”

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsWildcats coach Mark Stoops said he would "love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter" at quarterback.
Mark Stoops isn’t going to be mistaken for John Calipari anytime soon. But Stoops and his players are getting noticeably more attention than in years past. Thanks to back-to-back strong recruiting classes and the influx of talent that has followed, Kentucky football has been put back on the map where it has historically been most difficult to come by: right at home in Lexington.

Despite a 2-10 record last season, there’s hope for better days ahead. The Wildcats were competitive in losses to Louisville, South Carolina and Mississippi State, and with a top-20 recruiting class already making its way to campus, they might just get over the hump. The next step toward being competitive in the SEC begins Friday when Kentucky starts spring practice with an eye on finding more playmakers and settling who will start at quarterback.

“Next year will be our year,” Dupree said. “Next year we’ll come out and we’ll shock a couple of people. We’ll start off with the first couple game in the nonconference, and then against Florida I think we’ll be ready to show how much Coach Stoops has changed the program.”

Dupree has reason to feel good about his team’s chances. He and fellow defensive end Za’Darius Smith put the NFL on hold in order to return for their senior seasons, believing the defense will take a big step forward.

“I’m so impressed with him,” Stoops said of Dupree. “I’ll tell you what, after working with him at linebacker and defensive end, he’s so versatile. He understands the game so well.

“The same with Z. He’s a guy that’s getting better all the time. He already looked good, but he’s put on some good weight and is getting stronger.”

You’ll have to forgive Stoops for gushing over his seniors. The way he and his staff have made hay on the recruiting trail, it seems all he’s asked about now are underclassmen.

But such is the case when you’re a program building from the ground up. The talent pool Stoops inherited in 2012 wasn’t what you would describe as deep or even that well populated. Now it’s growing with each signing class and each high-profile recruit; guys like defensive tackle Matt Elam, who chose to sign with Kentucky over Alabama.

“There will be over 50 new players in a quick year and a half,” Stoops said. “So I do feel like that change is happening fast.”

More than anyone, Stoops is anxious to see how last year’s freshmen have matured and how his seven early enrollees will hold up this spring. Two junior college transfers -- defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps -- are expected to contribute immediately, along with several newcomers on offense.

“We definitely signed some of these guys to help us fill some holes,” Stoops said. “You never can tell until you get them in here and see how they can adapt to college football. But we love their athletic ability and their leadership. We’ll see how it goes but we do anticipate getting some of those guys coming in and having to play.”

The most anticipated newcomer is 6-foot-4, 217 pound quarterback Drew Barker, who was the crown jewel of the 2014 class.

“He has every opportunity to take control [at quarterback] because we’re so unsettled there,” Stoops said. “He’s a guy that’s very mature. He’s a guy that has high expectations himself and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position.”

Asked for a quick scouting report, Stoops played along.

“He’s a guy that is a drop-back quarterback,” he said. “He can distribute the ball to any spot on the field. He’s a big guy. He’s strong and has good arm strength. But he also can run it when he needs to. He’s definitely a throwing quarterback first, but he has that ability to run it on a few quarterback-designed runs if we need to.”

Next year will be our year. Next year we'll come out and we'll shock a couple of people.

Kentucky defensive end Alvin Dupree on the Wildcats' improvement.
Whether it’s Barker or the field, Stoops said he’d “love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means Maxwell Smith, who will miss all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, is out of the running, leaving Jalen Whitlow and Reese Phillips as the other two top contenders.

One thing is certain, though. Stoops wants to make a decision and stick with it.

“I’m not really keen on going through the year like I did last year being unsettled,” he said.

Conceptually, the offense should look the same. Stoops said he’d like to run a version of the hurry-up sometime in the future, but for now he’s content to let his personnel dictate the system. The talent is improving, it just has a little bit further to go.

There’s a youth movement taking place at Kentucky, and even veterans like Dupree understand where the program is headed.

“If you really want to win, you’re going to go out of your way to help them get better,” he said. “You can’t be selfish. You have to sacrifice certain things, maybe even your own playing time to get other people on the field to help the team win now.”

If Kentucky is going to shake its basketball-only school status, the football program is going to have to step up.

Year 1 of the Stoops era brought promise. Year 2 must pay dividends.

“We need a drastic improvement,” Stoops said. “A year ago we were taking very small steps to understand concepts and things like that. We need to improve now as football players and as a football team. We need to have the ability to make some big plays on offense and on defense.”

In other words, Kentucky football needs to demand the spotlight.

Opening spring camp: Kentucky

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
Schedule: The Wildcats open spring practice Friday and will conclude it on April 26 with the annual Blue/White Spring Game at 3:30 p.m. ET inside Commonwealth Stadium.

What's new: Craig Naivar came from Texas State, where he was the defensive coordinator and safeties coach the past three seasons, to coach the Wildcats' special teams and safeties after Bradley Dale Peveto left to coach special teams at LSU.

On the mend: Quarterback Maxwell Smith will not throw this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery. Wide receiver Alex Montgomery will also be limited as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered this past November. Linebacker TraVaughn Paschal will be limited to non-contact drills this spring as he recovers from offseason surgery. Safety Ashely Lowery will also miss contact portions of the spring as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.

On the move: As of now, the Wildcats don't have any significant position changes.

New faces: The Wildcats welcomed in five freshmen this spring: quarterback Drew Barker, wide receivers Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams, running back Mikel Horton, and linebacker Dorian Hendrix. Kentucky also had two junior college transfers come aboard: defensive tackle Cory Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps.

Question marks: The Wildcats have experience coming back in the secondary, with four starters returning, but there has to be better consistency out of that group. With Lowery on the mend, younger players will get good work at one of the safety spots opposite Eric Dixon. Mark Stoops likes his defensive backs to be versatile, so players will get time at each position. Kentucky's secondary produced just one interception last fall, so each position is up for grabs.

[+] EnlargeJalen Whitlow
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJalen Whitlow threw for 1,033 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions in 2013.
Clearly, the Wildcats would also like to take a few steps forward with their quarterback situation. With Smith out, the battle comes down to Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and early enrollee Barker. Finding some headway at quarterback will be crucial this spring.

With the losses of defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, the Wildcats are looking for some girth and help in the middle of their defensive line. Johnson might have to be the guy who takes the biggest steps this spring. He's already the most talented tackle on the team, but his development will be key.

The same issues still remain for the Wildcats: Who can be a true playmaker in this offense? Javess Blue could be that guy after leading the team in receiving in 2013. Up-and-comer Ryan Timmons could be another after making 12 catches last season. There's a battle at running back, highlighted by Jojo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard. Can one of them step up to be a consistent threat in this offense?

The Wildcats also have to replace linebacker Avery Williamson, who was such a big spark on the field and in the locker room. Maybe Khalid Henderson can be that player, but it's an open competition to replacing his importance.

Key battle: It has to be quarterback. The Wildcats haven't had any stability there in years and have yet another wide-open battle. Whitlow has the most game experience, but he has to improve his mechanics and decision-making. Those two areas have held him back with his development, and if he wants this job, that can't happen this spring. Towles redshirted last season, but arrived in Lexington with a load of hype and high expectations. For some reason, it just hasn't clicked for Towles. This could be his last shot at taking the starting spot. Phillips redshirted last season and enters the competition with no on-field experience, but he'll be in the thick of the competition. Then there's Barker, who might have the most upside and talent of the bunch. He was an ESPN 300 selection and a top-10 QB prospect coming out of high school. Barker has a lot of upside and talent, and as the future at the position, he'll have every chance to be the guy this spring and fall.

Breaking out: Kentucky's coaches were pleased with the development off offensive lineman Ramsey Meyers last season. He redshirted in 2013 and will have a chance to be the starting right guard for the Wildcats during his second year on campus. He's a physical blocker and could be a big plus in pass protection. Also, keep an eye on defensive tackle Regie Meant, who also redshirted last season. He has good size and athleticism, which will come in handy along the defensive line. He has a chance to play right away at one of the tackle spots, but can also move around the line and add some versatility.

Don't forget about: One of the top Kentucky recruits in 2013, defensive end Jason Hatcher, could be primed for a breakout sophomore season. He had two sacks last in 2013 and started to really hit his stride during the second half. He's another versatile player who can play with his hand on the ground and standing up as an outside linebacker. Also, defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree has a chance to be a household name in this league. He gets overlooked a lot in the SEC, but he's had a very solid three-year career with Kentucky. Moving to defensive end only made him a better player, as he finished the 2013 season with seven sacks.

All eyes on: The offense. This is a unit that scored a league-low 14.8 points per game in conference play last fall. There was too much up-and-down play at quarterback, no running back registered at least 500 rushing yards and no receiver collected 600 yards. The defense wasn't great, but made strides and showed good flashes in 2013. The offense has to take the next step. Playmakers must emerge and a quarterback has to show some sort of consistency and control.
Setting up the spring in the SEC East:


Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Change in attitude: There’s no time to look back. Will Muschamp and his staff are firmly focused on the future after a disastrous 4-8 campaign that saw the once-mighty Gators program brought to its knees. With his job on the line, Muschamp must change the woe-is-me attitude around Gainesville, get past last season's injuries and focus on how to bounce back in a big way.
  • Driskel’s health: It’s not just his broken leg that needs repair. Even before Jeff Driskel was lost for the season, the Gators’ starting quarterback was on a downward spiral with two touchdowns and three interceptions in three games. He’ll need to mature as a passer this spring and do a better job of reading the field and not locking onto receivers.
  • Revamping the defense: Only Vernon Hargreaves is back from the Florida secondary, and he’s just a true sophomore. Up front, the Gators return five of seven starters, which isn’t all bad. But defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has his hands full after seeing his unit fall from one of the best in the country early last season to one of the worst, giving up 21 points or more in five of the last seven games of the year, including 26 points in a loss to Georgia Southern.

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: The job of replacing Aaron Murray under center is clearly Hutson Mason’s to lose. After years of waiting, he’s the front-runner to start at quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2014. A so-so bowl game against Nebraska does beg for a strong spring to fend off challengers like Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
  • Pruitt effect on defense: He said he waited 11 years for the Georgia job to come open, and now it’s his. Jeremy Pruitt overhauled the Florida State defense in one year, and many of the Bulldogs faithful will be looking for the same instant returns in Athens this season. But with Josh Harvey-Clemons gone and such a maligned unit to begin with, a quick turnaround won’t be easy.
  • Secondary sans Harvey-Clemons: Talent wasn’t the secondary’s problem in 2013. Losing Harvey-Clemons depletes the reserves somewhat, but he wasn’t the most reliable player to begin with. With Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger, Corey Moore and Tramel Terry available, Georgia fans have reason to believe the back end of the defense can find some continuity.

Spring start: March 28

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Settle on a QB: Can Drew Barker come in as a true freshman and win the starting quarterback job in Lexington? There’s an outside shot the four-star prospect could do it considering he’s already on campus. He’ll duke it out with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, neither of whom separated themselves much last season.
  • Youth movement: Back-to-back impressive recruiting classes have raised the bar at Kentucky, where many freshmen and sophomores could see themselves starting in 2014, especially on offense, where the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmakers.
  • Second-year momentum: Losing 16 straight SEC games hurts, but coach Mark Stoops has built momentum through recruiting. Now he has to translate off-the-field success into wins and a bowl berth. His defense had a few shining moments last season, and with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith back, it could become a unit to rely on.

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Avoiding the letdown: Any time you have a turnaround like Missouri did last season, it begs the question whether it was a flash in the pan or a sign of more to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff get to answer that call this spring after making a run all the way to the SEC championship game in 2013. It won’t be easy, though, as he’ll have to replace a number of starters on both sides of the football.
  • Mauk’s time: There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent from James Franklin to Maty Mauk at quarterback. In fact, there were times last season when it looked as if Mauk, a redshirt freshman, was the better option under center. His two-game stretch against Kentucky and Tennessee (8 TDs, no INTs) was more than impressive. But this fall, he’ll have more pressure as the full-time starter, leading to questions on whether he’s ready to take control of the offense and become a leader.
  • Rebuilding the defense: The core of Dave Steckel’s defense is gone. Pass-rushers Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have left. So have two-thirds of the starters at linebacker and the entire starting lineup in the secondary, including the always-reliable E.J. Gaines. Getting Markus Golden and Shane Ray back on the defensive line will help, but the secondary will be a difficult rebuild.

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Life after Shaw: Let’s face it: You can replace Connor Shaw’s 24 passing touchdowns and 2,447 yards. Dylan Thompson, the presumptive starter, has the tools to move the ball through the air. But you can’t replace Shaw’s leadership ability and his tenacity. There was no better competitor in the SEC last season than Shaw, and it remains to be seen whether Thompson can display the same type of intangibles.
  • A Clowney-less defense: Yes, Jadeveon Clowney and his ridiculous athleticism are gone. No longer will we see the dreadlocked pass-rusher in garnet and black. But he’s not the only defensive end who left Columbia. So did Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles. And while there’s no Clowney on the roster, look for someone like Darius English to step up at defensive end.
  • Finding playmakers on offense: Losing Bruce Ellington to the draft will hurt. But South Carolina had already struggled with playmakers at receiver last season. This fall, that needs to change. Someone needs to step up and take the load off running back Mike Davis. There are plenty of options, though losing starting wideout Damiere Byrd for most of the spring certainly hurts.

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • A youthful tint: If you think Stoops has done some recruiting, just look at the class Butch Jones put together at Tennessee. With 35 signees in this year’s class, the Vols will get an immediate influx of talent on a roster that desperately needs it. Fourteen early enrollees will have an opportunity to make an impact right away.
  • QB competition: Rebuilding the offensive line is one thing. Finding a few more playmakers at receiver and running back is another. But whatever Jones does, he must find a quarterback. Josh Dobbs played some as a true freshman, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson might be the one to watch.
  • Retrenching the trenches: Tennessee enjoyed one of the most veteran offensive and defensive lines in the country last season. So much for that. Antonio Richardson, Ja’Wuan James and Daniel McCullers are all gone. All five starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, along with all four spots on the defensive front.

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Start of the Mason era: Former coach James Franklin left behind a much better Vanderbilt program than he found in 2011. But he also snatched many of the school’s top recruits when he left for Penn State this offseason, leaving new coach Derek Mason in something of a hole. But nonetheless, Mason, 44, has an opportunity to reinvent the Vanderbilt program with some of the hard-nosed principals he became known for at Stanford.
  • Robinette steps in: He’s given Vanderbilt fans reason to be hopeful, but can Patton Robinette do even more as the new starter under center? He certainly got off on the right foot last season, leading a come-from-behind win over Georgia, the first win over Florida since 1940 and a win over Tennessee in which he scored the decisive touchdown with only a few seconds left.
  • But who will he throw to? Vanderbilt lost its best receiver in program history when Jordan Matthews graduated. The future high NFL draft pick wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave as Jonathan Krause, who started 11 of 13 games as a senior, is also gone. Look for 6-foot-3 true freshman Rashad Canty to get a look with the depth chart so wide open.

Season report card: Kentucky

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
The first year under Mark Stoops was a rough one for the Wildcats, who didn't have much to celebrate in 2013:


[+] EnlargeAlabama Defense
AP Photo/Garry JonesThings were never easy for Jalen Whitlow and the Kentucky offense this season.
With quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow switching in and out for most of the year, there was never really much rhythm with Kentucky's offense. The Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in total offense (341.3), scoring (20.5), passing (193.4) and rushing (147.9). Running backs Jojo Kemp and Raymond Sanders both rushed for more than 400 yards, but failed to rush for more than 42 yards per game. The Wildcats scored 30-plus points just twice in 2013.


Stoops prides himself on being a defensive mind, but like offense, the Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the league in all major defensive categories, including ranking 13th in scoring (31.2) and total defense (427.2). Kentucky surrendered 36.4 points per game in conference play. Kentucky was also last in the league on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 44.7 percent of the time. Defensive linemen Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for 13 sacks, while linebacker Avery Williamson ranked sixth in the league with 102 tackles.


Kicker Joe Mansour was Kentucky's leading scoring, connecting on 12 of 14 (85.7) field goals and 28 of 30 extra points, while punter Landon Foster averaged 41.3 yards per punt, had a long of 59 yards, sent seven 50-plus yards and downed 15 inside the 20-yard line. Kentucky ranked within the top half of the league against punt and kick returns, while Demarco Robinson ranked third in the league on punt returns (12.7 yards per return).


Stoops certainly wasn't thrilled with the fact that he went 2-10 on the season and 0-8 in conference play, but his team didn't quit. At the end of the day, Stoops was working from behind in his first year in ever aspect. There were no true playmakers on offense, and the defense had holes at linebacker and in the secondary. It didn't help that there was so much inconsistency at quarterback, but the hope is that Stoops' current recruiting class helps both sides of the ball. Considering the circumstances, it's tough to give a first-year coach like Stoops a failing grade for all the adversity this program faced in his first year.

Past grades:

Season wrap: Kentucky

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
It was a rough first season for new head coach Mark Stoops & Co. in Lexington, Ky. The Wildcats' only two victories came against winless Miami (Ohio) and FCS foe Alabama State. Kentucky did not win a conference game, either.

The good news is that Stoops is faring well on the recruiting trail and more talent is on the way, as the Wildcats have the 19th-ranked 2014 class. Also, a $110 million redesign of Commonwealth Stadium is in the works. There's really nowhere else to go but up.

Offensive MVP: The Wildcats didn't have skill position players who produced eye-popping numbers, but redshirt freshman center Jon Toth started 11 games and graded out well. He had 41 knockdown blocks and missed only three assignments for the season. He earned a spot on the coaches' SEC All-Freshman team.

Defensive MVP: Senior linebacker Avery Williamson led the Wildcats with 102 tackles and had four tackles for loss, a sack and two fumble recoveries. Williamson earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches. Junior defensive end Alvin Dupree also had a strong season, leading the team in sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (9.5).

Best moment: In a two-win season, there typically aren't many great moments. There were some positive moments in losses, particularly the fight the Wildcats showed to keep their game against South Carolina close on Oct. 5. The Wildcats trailed 21-0 at one point and 27-7 going into the fourth quarter, but pulled to within a score in the final quarter and ultimately lost 35-28.

Worst moment: The late-season blowout loss to Georgia wasn't pretty. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray threw four first-half touchdown passes before leaving with a knee injury, and his backup, Hutson Mason, came in and threw for 189 more yards, running and throwing for touchdowns. Georgia ran away with a 59-17 victory.

Kentucky season preview

August, 12, 2013
Today, our SEC preview shifts to the Kentucky Wildcats.

Coach: Mark Stoops (0-0)

2012 record: 2-10, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
University of Kentucky AthleticsMark Stoops will be looking to develop some players in his first season at Kentucky.
Key losses: RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

Key returnees: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson

Newcomer to watch: Junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith had a great spring and summer and should be able to make an immediate impact at defensive end this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Western Kentucky (in Nashville), Aug. 31; Louisville, Sept. 14; Florida, Sept. 28; Missouri, Nov. 9; at Vanderbilt, Nov. 16; Tennessee, Nov. 30

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Wildcats might have three quarterbacks competing for the starting job, but figuring out who will catch passes from any of them is still a mystery. There is a lot of potential at receiver, but there isn't any real production or consistency coming back. Junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore Daryl Collins were expected to break out in 2012, but combined for just 45 catches and 468 yards with no touchdowns. Highly recruited freshman Ryan Timmons and junior college transfer Javess Blue will have every opportunity to be fixtures at receiver this fall.

Forecast: Stoops has quite the task in his first season with the Wildcats. The good news is that the defensive-minded coach will have a lot of talent and experience to work with along his defensive line. Past coaches waited and waited for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to reach their potential. Now, it seems like both are ready to do that and more this fall. Helping them out will be Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who is one of the league's best pass-rushers and moved from linebacker to end when the Wildcats went from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. Having Za'Darius Smith and freshman Jason Hatcher at the ends should make this line even more athletic this fall.

There are mixed reviews at running back. Even with the loss of Josh Clemons for the second straight year, the Wildcats have senior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who is returning from hernia surgery. Both had good springs, but with Clemons' injury and the departure of Justin Taylor, both have to remain healthy because there isn't much depth at all.

There's a three-headed quarterback battle that carried into camp. Sophomore Jalen Whitlow left spring with the edge, but he still has to beat Maxwell Smith, who began last season as the starter before injuries took his season, and classmate Patrick Towles.

Players have to step up at receiver and tight end, and the Wildcats are thin at linebacker after Dupree's move to the defensive line. Three starters from the secondary are gone; Kentucky is getting some help, but it's coming in the form of the 2013 signees.

Stoops knows he has a lot of issues to work through in his first season, and while a bowl game could be a lofty goal, there's no doubt the Wildcats will be more competitive in 2013. Stoops certainly wants to win this fall, but a lot of the season will be devoted to development for the future.
Now that you've seen where the 14 SEC defensive lines rank heading into the 2013 season, it's time to look at the top defensive linemen coming back.

We're splitting the linemen into ends and tackles, and we'll start with the guys on the outside:

1. Jadeveon Clowney, Jr., South Carolina: Clowney might be the best, most athletic player in the country, regardless of position. He has 21 career sacks (South Carolina's record is 29) and 35.5 tackles for loss, but has yet to play his best ball for the Gamecocks. He's a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and is easily the most disruptive defensive player in the country when he's going 100 percent. Oh, and he runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash while carrying 274 pounds.

[+] EnlargeAlvin Dupree
Richey Miller/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)Focusing more on the defensive end position this fall, junior Alvin "Bud" Dupree aims to lead Kentucky on the outside.
2. Chris Smith, Sr., Arkansas: He doesn't have near the clout as Clowney, but Smith had a fine 2012 season. He was fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks and tied for fifth with 13 tackles for loss. Smith isn't just fierce against the pass either, as he can hold his own in the trenches against the run, too. Smith registered multiple tackles for loss in six of the Hogs final seven games last year.

3. Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Jr., Kentucky: He's moving from outside linebacker, but Dupree has been one of the best pass-rushers in the league the past two years. He has nine sacks in two years and had 12.5 tackles for loss last year. Dupree has exceptional speed off the edge and should be even more dangerous with his hand in the ground this fall.

4. Chaz Sutton, Sr., South Carolina: Even though he was a backup last year, Sutton was still third on the team with five sacks. He really played well when the Gamecocks had four ends on the field (rabbits package) for passing situations. Plus, he'll be freed up a lot this season with teams concentrating so hard on Clowney. Sutton will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays this fall.

5. Dante Fowler Jr., So., Florida: Fowler plays that hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, but could see more time at end this fall. He's extremely athletic and fast off the edge and had eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. He looked really good this spring and if he continues to improve, he could push fellow Buck Ronald Powell to outside linebacker this fall.

6. C.J. Johnson, Jr., Ole Miss: Johnson should be fully healed from the broken leg he suffered this spring. He has really come a long way in his two years with the Rebels and should establish himself as one of the league's best pass-rushers this fall. He led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks last year and collected 28 solo tackles.

7. Walker May, Sr., Vanderbilt: He might be one of the most underrated players in the SEC. He started 13 games last year, recording 41 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and three sacks. May had at least one tackle for loss in eight games last season, and had five games in which he registered three or more solo tackles.

8. Jermauria Rasco, Jr., LSU: Les Miles didn't seem to concerned with Rasco stepping in at end this spring. He might even be a more polished pass-rusher than predecessors Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, which is scary to think about. He didn't record a lot of stats last year, but he had two years to learn from Mingo and Montgomery, and should have a big season on LSU's rebuilt defensive line.

9. Dee Ford, Sr., Auburn: Ford was one of Auburn's best players last year and finished the year leading the team with six sacks and added 6.5 tackles for loss. Ford was pretty impressive a year removed from a season-ending back injury. He's explosive off the line, is very good in the pass game and should be Auburn's best defensive player this fall.

10. Ed Stinson, Sr., Alabama: With Alabama's three-man front, the versatile Stinson will mainly be outside, but has a chance to move around to give the Tide different looks. Stinson was second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and had three sacks last season. Of his 30 tackles last year, 20 were solo.
The SEC prides itself on having all that talent in the trenches, and the defensive lines in this league just continue set this conference apart from everyone else. Here's how all 14 lines rank in the SEC heading into the 2013 season:

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThe whole nation may be familiar with Jadeveon Clowney, but there's even more power on the South Carolina defensive line.
1. South Carolina: There's more to South Carolina's defensive front than man-beast Jadeveon Clowney. While his 21 career sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss are great, he gets good help from a solid helping of depth, beginning with starters Kelcy Quarles (defensive tackle) and Chaz Sutton (end). Quarles might be one of the most underrated linemen around and should improve on his 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss from last year. Sutton was a backup last year, but still registered five sacks and seven tackles for loss. Tackle J.T. Surratt saw action in just 10 games last year, but moves into a starting role this year. Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. provide good depth at tackle and end.

2. Florida: Sure, the Gators lost All-American Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter, but Florida rotated enough guys in last year to have good experience coming back across the board. Star lineman Dominique Easley will play at his more natural position at tackle this year, but will move outside at times. He led Florida with four sacks last year and was consistently disruptive all year. Florida is loaded at end with sophomores Dante Fowler Jr. and Jonathan Bullard returning. Ronald Powell, who is coming off of two ACL injuries will rotate with Fowler at the hybrid linebacker/end "Buck" position, while Damien Jacobs and Darious Cummings will help out at tackle.

3. Arkansas: While Arkansas featured one of the league's worst defenses last year, the Razorbacks were solid up front. Arkansas returns one of the best defensive end combos in senior Chris Smith and junior Trey Flowers. They combined for 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss last year. Inside, you have seniors Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Jones has started 29 games in his career and had 52 tackles last year. Thomas steps into a starting role this fall after recording five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year. The Hogs have young reserves, the staff is excited about guys like JaMichael Winston, Brandon Lewis, Darius Philon, DeMarcus Hodge and Deatrich Wise Jr.

4. LSU: The Tigers lost a lot up front, but this team is used to reloading along the defensive line. Tackle Anthony Johnson has the meat and ability to be one of the best at his position, and excels as both a run-stopper and pass-rusher. He'll be helped by junior Ego Ferguson, who has all the talent to be successful but is still looking to reach his full potential. The staff is expecting big things from end Jermauria Rasco, who might be a better pure pass-rusher than Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery before him. Danielle Hunter and Jordan Allen should do more at end, while incoming freshman Tashawn Bower could see immediate playing time. Also, keep an eye on freshman Christian LaCouture, who played his way into the two-deep this spring at tackle.

5. Ole Miss: There are depth issues at defensive tackle, but the Rebels are stacked on the outside. C.J. Johnson should be back from the broken leg he suffered this spring, and has All-SEC talent at end. Fellow end Cameron Whigham only had 1.5 sacks last year, but started 11 games. Channing Ward got a lot of action this spring with Johnson out and has the chance to have a true breakout season. All eyes will be on freshman Robert Nkemdiche, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2013 recruiting class and is physically ready to play right now. Tackle Issac Gross should be healed from his spring grown injury and will get good help from junior college transfer Lavon Hooks.

6. Alabama: Right now, Alabama is still searching for the elite players it's used to having up front. This unit wasn't as consistent as Nick Saban would have wanted this spring, but there is a lot of potential in the trenches, starting with the versatile Ed Stinson, who can line up inside or out and recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last year. Jeoffrey Pagan could be fun to watch at the other end spot. He was a big-time recruit a few years ago and will get a lot more time to shine this fall. Brandon Ivory has to replace Jesse Williams at nose guard, but showed good flashes this spring. LaMichael Fanning will also help at end. Alabama is young here, but will continuously rotate again in order to keep guys fresh.

7. Vanderbilt: End Walker May is the star of this very talented group. He isn't the biggest at his position, but he's a relentless worker and is exception at getting to the quarterback on passing plays. Junior Kyle Woestmann came on very strong during the second half of the 2012 season, registering six sacks in the final five games. Then there's sophomore Caleb Azibuke, who grabbedd 4.5 sacks last year, had a great spring and is extremely athletic. With two starters departing, depth is an issue inside, but tackle Jared Morese, who started six games last year is back after being kicked off this team this spring for violating team rules. Juniors Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor both played in 13 games last year. The Commodores also had to move offensive lineman Adam Butler to defensive tackle this spring.

8. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience, starting with seniors Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson at defensive tackle. Rumph, who is coming off of a spring shoulder injury, is the best of the bunch and recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks last year. Cobble is finally starting to reach his potential, and should improve on his three tackles for loss and two sacks from last year. Johnson started nine straight games to end last season. Alvin "Bud" Dupree has nine sacks in the last two years and is moving from linebacker to end this year. Helping him will be junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who had an exceptional spring. Incoming freshman end Jason Hatcher will also get a chance to play immediately.

9. Georgia: The first order of business is finding a suitable nose guard to replace the massive John Jenkins. Right now, it looks like that will happen by committee. Junior Mike Thornton left spring as the starter there, but has just one career tackle. Redshirt sophomore Chris Mayes is next in line, but hasn't recorded any stats during his career. Freshman John Atkins enrolled early this spring and junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who could be the best of them, is recovering from an ACL injury. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cross-trained all his linemen and was very pleased with Sterling Bailey's improvement, along with senior Garrison Smith, who started eight games last year. Junior Ray Drew is also getting more comfortable up front.

10. Mississippi State: It's not like Mississippi State doesn't have the talent or potential up front, but his group really struggled to get to the quarterback last year. Senior end Denico Autry struggled through the first part of last season, but played strong down the stretch, which is really encouraging to the staff. End Preston Smith was a backup last year, but still led the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks. The staff seems pretty excited about tackle P.J. Jones, who made some big plays late for this team last year. Of course, having vet Kaleb Eulls back helps and it looks like he's permanently moving inside. End Ryan Brown didn't blow up the stat chart last year, but had a good spring and should see plenty of playing time this fall.

11. Missouri: This unit was probably the Tigers' strongest last year, but it lost its best player in tackle Sheldon Richardson. Mizzou has to replace him by committee, and Gary Pinkel seemed pleased with his tackles this spring. Matt Hoch had a very good spring and while he isn't the same player as Richardson, he figures out ways to get to the ball and started 12 games last year. Lucas Vincent will line up at nose guard, but injuries limited him to just three tackles last year. Redshirt freshman Harold Brantley has a lot of potential at tackle and should see good time this fall. The Tigers are pretty solid outside, with Kony Ealy and Michael Sam returning. Ealy is just waiting to break out, while Sam led the team with 4.5 sacks last fall. Shane Ray provides good depth at end, while tackle Marvin Foster played in 10 games last year.

12. Tennessee: The Vols have to figure out how to move around all those pieces up front with the defense moving back to a traditional 4-3 look. Big-bodied Daniel McCullers is the top player along the line, but he has to be more disruptive up front. He has to be more than just a space eater. Senior Jacques Smith should move down to end from linebacker, while fellow seniors Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood should push for starting time at end and tackle. Senior Maurice Couch is another player with a ton of talent, but has to be more consistent inside. Junior Jordan Williams should also move down after playing a hybrid end/linebacker position last year.

13. Auburn: The Tigers just weren't good enough up front last year, ranking 11th in the SEC in sacks (22) and 12th in tackles for loss (66). Now the best player -- end Corey Lemonier -- is gone. A handful of vets return, but this group has to be tougher and more consistent. Senior ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae lead things up front, but only accounted for 8.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks last year. Eguae will have his hands full trying to fend off Kenneth Carter, who moved from tackle to end this spring. Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright lead the inside game, but only Blackson had more than five tackles for lass last year (a team-high seven).

14. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost quality starters like Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy and the injury bug devastated this unit during the spring. No one will replace Moore's 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks, but A&M needs multiple guys to step up. Julien Obioha started 12 games as a true freshman last year, but has to stay healthy this fall, as he's the key to the entire line. He also has to generate a better pass rush. Tackle Kirby Ennis started 11 games last year, but ran into legal trouble before spring practice and was suspended, but is expected to return. Youngsters Alonzo Williams, Tyrone Taylor and Tyrell Taylor will be thrown into the mix this fall, but expect plenty of growing pains. Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams have showed flashes here and there, but will have to much more consistent this fall.
Every year, players come and go in college football. With the turnover teams can either grow or take steps back.

It's time to check out Kentucky's strongest position and weakest position heading into the 2013 season:

Strongest position: Defensive line

New coach Mark Stoops really lucked out when it came to his defensive line. The Wildcats have the pieces in place up front to cause some real discomfort for opposing offenses. The foundation up front could help mask the issues the Wildcats have at linebacker and in the secondary due to inexperience. Inside, Kentucky has starters Donte Rumph and Tristian Johnson return, along with the talented Mister Cobble, who showed vast improvement last year and this spring. Rumph registered four sacks and six tackles for loss last year, while Cobble and Johnson combined for 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Two starters are gone outside, but Alvin Dupree is moving from linebacker to end. He was Kentucky's best pass-rusher last year (12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks) and could be even more of a threat to passing games with his hand in the ground. Dupree is All-SEC material. And he'll have help from junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith, who registered 47 tackles, 11 for loss and 6.5 sacks at the juco ranks last fall. He had a very good spring and should come in and make an immediate impact. Freshman Jason Hatcher should also help on the outside as well.

Weakest position: Secondary and/or pass-catchers

The Wildcats are really hurting to find a consistent receiving threat now that La'Rod King is gone. Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins will be in their third years this fall, and while they have big-play potential, they just haven't been able to live up to that potential. Yes, the quarterback play hasn't been great, but there comes a point where players have to step up and figure out a way to make plays. Both players were held under 300 yards last year. It doesn't help that three seniors are gone, making this a very young group overall. Only four players return with any experience from last year, with only Robinson catching more than 20 passes. Freshman Ryan Timmons has a chance to play right away, along with juco standouts Javess Blue and Steven Borden, who was on campus this spring.

As for the secondary, the Wildcats lost three starters and safety Ashely Lowery is working his way back onto the field after his horrific car accident. Both cornerback and safety are littered with youngsters, which means that incoming players will have a pretty good shot at getting valuable playing time. Regardless, the secondary is going to be younger and more inexperienced than Stoops would like in his first year. Sophomore corners J.D. Harmon (two interceptions), Cody Quinn (five pass breakups) and Fred Tiller (two pass breakups) are the only returners with any stats at corner. There is a little more experience at safety, but not much. Getting senior Dakotah Tyler back from his knee injury will be big, but he's only played sparingly for the Cats during his career.