- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.