As he prepares to open his fourth spring at Kentucky, Mark Stoops finds himself in much the same position this year as he was in 2015. He and his rebuilt coaching staff are looking for answers as to how they can push past the five-win barrier and reach bowl eligibility for the first time.
The Wildcats were in position to play in the postseason in each of the last two years before late-season implosions left them at 5-7 both times, just a win shy of bowl appearances. Now, with a new offensive scheme and brand-new defensive front seven, Kentucky needs to have a highly productive spring if things are to end any differently this fall.
Here is a snapshot of the program as the Wildcats prepare to open spring practice:
2015 record: 5-7
Final AP rank: Unranked
2016 Way-too-early rank: Unranked
2016 FPI rank: No. 54
Spring game date: April 16
1. How will the offense change under Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw? Kentucky is on its third offensive coordinator in three years now that Gran -- in his fourth SEC stop after previous stints at Ole Miss, Auburn and Tennessee -- takes over for Shannon Dawson.
Gran brings with him Hinshaw, the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Together they guided one of the nation’s most prolific passing attacks last season at Cincinnati. The Bearcats ranked sixth in passing offense (359.9 yards per game) and averaged 33.8 points per game in 2015. Interestingly enough, Cincinnati actually passed the ball more often (54.1 percent of the time) than Kentucky (52.3), which ran versions of the “Air Raid” offense under Dawson and predecessor Neal Brown.
So what happens now? The Wildcats have a deep group of receivers -- including Garrett Johnson (46 catches, 694 receiving yards, 2 TDs last season), Dorian Baker (55-608, 3 TDs), Jeff Badet (29-430, 2 TDs) and Blake Bone (20-210, TD) -- working under new position coach Lamar Thomas. However, they have no reason to abandon the running game since Stanley Williams (755 rushing yards, 6 TDs), Jojo Kemp (555 yards, 6 TDs) and Mikel Horton (318 yards, 3 TDs) remain on the roster.
2. Can anyone unseat Drew Barker at quarterback? After finishing last season as the starting quarterback, Barker would seem like the odds-on favorite to start in 2016 for the Wildcats. That likelihood seems even greater after Towles' and Reese Phillips' decisions to transfer. But Kentucky’s coaches will give junior college transfer Johnson a chance to compete for the job, and early enrollee Hoak might add another layer of intrigue to the competition.
Barker arrived at Kentucky in 2014 as a four-star prospect, ESPN 300 honoree and U.S. Army All-American. Last season, he played like you might expect a redshirt freshman to play after taking over the job from Towles. He won his debut against Charlotte, but his overall passing numbers were not much to write home about. In five games (including two starts), he completed 50 percent of his passes for 364 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions -- good for a so-so 44.9 Total Quarterback Rating.
Stoops has publicly voiced his support for Barker, but it’s hard to believe that he has the job nailed down yet. If one of the newcomers is especially impressive this spring, the race could stretch into preseason practice.
3. Who fills the openings on the front seven? The Wildcats will deal with massive turnover along the defensive front after losing nose guard Lewis, tackle Cory Johnson and ends Huguenin and Jabari Johnson. The turnover at linebacker is just as severe since Forrest and Flannigan were seniors and Hatcher is no longer on the team following his February arrest for marijuana trafficking.
In all, the Wildcats must replace six of their top seven tacklers, a group led by Forrest (93 tackles, six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions).
The good news for Stoops is that he will not rely entirely on youngsters who have not played yet. A pair of transfers -- Love (Nebraska) and Laster (Minnesota) -- could make an immediate impact at linebacker, and the Wildcats also have Denzil Ware and early enrollee Daniel among their options at the position.
Meanwhile, the defensive front has nose tackle Matt Elam and a bunch of questions. Courtney Miggins and Regie Meant are two options up front, but this group will be highly unproven. The Wildcats tied for 108th nationally with 17 sacks last season and ranked 118th with an average of 4.4 TFLs per game. Now they’re breaking in almost an entirely new front seven. This group has a ton of questions to answer between now and September.