- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: The Wildcats' first practice is on Saturday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 8. They open the season at Louisville on Sept. 2 and the game will be televised on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Returning starters: Four on offense, five on defense and the place-kicker on special teams.
Star power: Wide receiver La'Rod King didn't get a ton of publicity last year, but he was easily Kentucky's most consistent offensive weapon in 2011. He was 11th in the SEC with 598 yards on 40 catches. He also had seven touchdowns.
New faces: Quarterback Patrick Towles was the biggest get of the 2012 class for Kentucky. He was a Parade All-American and has a chance to push both Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton for time this fall. He might possess the most skill at the quarterback position. The Wildcats also welcome in five freshmen offensive linemen. Kentucky has to replace three starters from last year and is in need of depth up front. Also, keep an eye on running back Justin Taylor, who was originally committed to Alabama.
Don’t forget about: Kentucky's staff has been waiting for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to step up in the middle of that line. Last year, they combined for 64 tackles, but just six tackles for loss, including two sacks. But the staff feels much more confident in the two big guys up front, after both had very good springs this year. Joker Phillips said this summer that he thinks Cobble could be poised for a big year and should be even better at stopping the run.
Big shoes to fill: Linebacker Danny Trevathan wasn't just a leader, he was the heart and soul of Kentucky's team. He led the league in tackles the past two years and was easily the team's best player last year, regardless of position, and it will take a lot to replace what he did on and off the field. So far, the Wildcats' staff is still searching for the right player to take over his spot at weakside linebacker. Malcolm McDuffen and Demarius Rancifer battled there this spring, but neither did enough to earn a lot of confidence from their coaches. Kentucky might have to look at a true freshman here as well.
Key battles: The Wildcats are replacing two starting cornerbacks and four linebackers. Avery Wilson returns with the most experience at linebacker and sophomore Alvin Dupree seems to have wrapped up hybrid linebacker/defensive end, but everything else is up for grabs. McDuffen and Rancifer will continue to battle for the weakside spot, along with incoming freshman Khalid Henderson. Miles Simpson, Josh Forrest and junior college transfer Kory Brown will compete for the hybrid linebacker/safety spot. With Marcus Caffey being ruled ineligible, the staff will now look to Eric Simmons and Eric Dixon to help out Cartier Rice.
Rising star: King needs help at the receiver position, and the staff thinks it might have found some in redshirt freshman Demarco Robinson. He had a tremendous spring and hauled in nine catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. He's versatile enough to line up all over the field and could be a solid deep threat in the Wildcats' offense.
Bottom line: This is a crucial year for Phillips. After Kentucky made a bowl game for five straight years, the Wildcats fell a win short in 2011, causing Phillips' seat to get a little warmer. The one saving grace was the fact that Kentucky ended a 20-plus-year losing streak to rival Tennessee. But Kentucky has to show progress this fall or Phillips' job security could come into question. The offense was the SEC's worst last season, but the staff feels it has more playmakers and should be more explosive this time. The defense has a lot of key players to replace and could go through some growing pains with all that youth. If Kentucky wants to get back to a bowl, it has to start the season 3-0. That means beating Louisville in the season opener.