- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: The Wildcats open spring practice on Saturday and they wrap everything up with their final practice on April 15. There will be no spring football game this year because of ongoing construction at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky will also take a brief hiatus from March 15-22 for the school’s spring break, so there will be no practices in that window.
What’s new: Kentucky welcomes a new offensive coordinator, Shannon Dawson. Previously at West Virginia, Dawson is part of the Air Raid offensive coaching tree, which should help the Wildcats keep some continuity offensively after the departure of Neal Brown, who was also an Air Raid disciple and left Lexington after two years as the offensive coordinator to be the head coach at Troy. Having worked under Dana Holgorsen, Dawson brings some keen insight and it should be interesting to see how the offense operates with him calling the plays. The Wildcats also brought in Andy Buh, most recently the defensive coordinator at Cal, to be Kentucky’s linebackers coach. Buh also made stops at Stanford, Nevada and Wisconsin in the last eight years.
New faces: Six players enrolled early in the 2015 recruiting class: offensive lineman George Asafo-Adjei, tight end C.J. Conrad, defensive end Kengera Daniel, tight end Greg Hart, linebacker Jordan Jones and linebacker Courtney Love. Hart and Love transferred from Nebraska, the other four are high school signees that graduated early.
Question marks: Kentucky loses a lot of production on the defensive side of the ball with the departure of Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. The duo did wonders for the Wildcats’ pass rush and finding quality successors is a key task for defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh. Both players were also considered leaders on last year’s Kentucky teams, so finding new voices in that area is also important. Also, the Wildcats return four starters on the offensive line but must show some improvement from last season, where they were near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed and rushing yards.
Key battle: Quarterback will be a position to watch again this spring. Towles won the job and performed respectably last season, helping Kentucky to a tremendous first half before the Wildcats struggled in the season’s second half. With Phillips out, the primary contender to push Towles this spring is redshirt freshman Drew Barker. Remember, Barker came in last season with a lot of buzz because of his lofty status as a recruit -- the ESPN 300 prospect was the No. 9 ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class and was the state of Kentucky’s top-rated recruit. After a redshirt year, how much will Barker challenge Towles for the starting job?
Breaking out: Stanley Williams showed some real promise late last season, rushing for a 126 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale against Louisville and 100 yards and a score against Georgia. The man they call “Boom” will be a sophomore and with Braylon Heard gone, there are more carries to go around between Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton. The Wildcats also have a wealth of gifted young receivers who are continuing to grow. Keep an eye on junior Ryan Timmons (45 catches, 536 yards last season), sophomore Garrett Johnson (22 catches, 271 yards), sophomore Dorian Baker (19 catches, 199 yards) and sophomore Blake Bone (14 catches, 194 yards) as guys who could potentially see their production jump this year.
Don’t forget about: Safety A.J. Stamps. The junior college transfer had a promising start to last season, picking off three passes in the Wildcats’ first five games and ended the season with his fourth interception in the season finale against Louisville. If he can take a step forward and become more consistent, that would be good for the back end of the defense. Don’t forget about Kentucky’s linebackers either. The Wildcats have some talent there with the likes of Josh Forrest, who was fifth in the league with 110 tackles. Veteran Khalid Henderson returns, as does Ryan Flannigan. If the unit can get a boost from the NCAA in the form of ruling Courtney Love immediately eligible rather than having to sit out a year, that would be a nice boost.
All eyes on: Mark Stoops. He has done a solid job building the Wildcats in his short time there, recruiting well and showing signs of on-field progress. Now the question is whether they can take the next step under Stoops and make a bowl game. For a short time last season it looked like they might do it in 2014 but lost six straight to close out the year. Stoops was rewarded for his good job so far with a deserved raise and contract extension, now fans are hoping he can keep that progress going by getting Kentucky into the postseason.
Fans are hoping coach Mark Stoops can keep progress going by getting Kentucky into the postseason.