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Opponent preview: an Insider's look at Kentucky

Our Kentucky Insider helps us see what 's in store for the Bulldogs in Week 9 of the 2016 season.   

Mark Stoops believes he has Kentucky headed in the right direction.
Mark Stoops believes he has Kentucky headed in the right direction.
USA Today

Georgia at Kentucky

Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, Kentucky

Nov. 5, 2016, TBA

Kentucky head coach: Mark Stoops (4th season, 12-24)

Coordinators: Eddie Gran, Darin Hinshaw (Offensive Coordinators); D.J. Eliot (defensive coordinator)

Kentucky 2015 record: 5-7 (In conference finished 2-6, 5th in the SEC East)

2015 offensive stats: 89th nationally in total offense (372 YPG), 95th in scoring offense (34.7 PPG), 79th in passing offense (209.3), 78th in rushing offense (162.7)

2015 defensive stats: 59thth nationally in total defense (394.2 YPG), 69th in scoring defense (27.5 PPG), 28th in passing defense (198.1 YPG), 96th in rushing defense (196.1 YPG)

Returning leading passer: Drew Barker had a lot of growing up to do as a true freshman, but has made good strides and finished the year by completing 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards and one touchdown. Junior college transfer Stephen Johnson could see action as a change-of-pace option.

Returning leading rusher: Junior Stanley “Boom” Williams, a former Georgia commit, rushed for 855 yards and six touchdowns despite missing two games.

Returning leading receiver: Junior Dorian Baker had a decent year for the Wildcats, catching a team-best 55 passes for 608 yards and three touchdowns.

Returning leading tackler: Kentucky has some holes to fill with their three leading tacklers gone from last year, but one name to look for is sophomore linebacker Jordan Jones.

Returning leaders in interceptions: Senior J.D. Harmon led Kentucky with three picks last year but he’s not even listed as a starter on the Wildcats’ post-spring depth chart. The Wildcats are starting four sophomores, a group which some think may be the program’s most talented in several years.

Stanley Williams has become the key man in Kentucky's backfield.
Stanley Williams has become the key man in Kentucky's backfield.
USA Today

FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY Justin Rowland of CatsIllustrated.com

What was your biggest takeaway from spring practice?

JR: “I'd say the biggest takeaway is that the team is going through a pretty big transformation. Will it be good? We'll see. They're asking Drew Barker to live up to his billing at quarterback, they have six new assistant coaches and the front seven on defense gets a makeover. The unknown leaves a lot of room for optimists and pessimists to disagree. One clear theme has been a bit of a culture change. The new assistants, and particular offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, seem to be no-nonsense guys and there's a sense that's already trickling down.”

What’s the biggest challenge for the team heading into the year?

JR: “Questions on the defensive line. The linebacker unit suffered a blow with Jason Hatcher's arrest this offseason (and his subsequent expulsion from the team), but they're still an athletic group with the potential to be solid. But the group in front of them, the defensive linemen, has lots of question marks.

"C.J. Johnson was a tackling machine at defensive tackle (19 stops in one game last year) and when nose guard Melvin Lewis played he was above average in the middle. They're gone, as is Farrington Huguenin. There are a lot of young players with better recruiting rankings than previous Kentucky line groups, but this unit is relatively inexperienced and very unproven. In the SEC, that's troubling.

“One big obstacle to overcome, additionally, could be a mental hurdle from the last two years. Kentucky started 5-1 in 2014 and 4-2 in 2015. Then they collapsed. There were reasons for those tumbles both years, but there are some fans who are a bit jaded by that.”

What would be the biggest offensive storyline heading into the season?

JR: “That would be how Barker's going to fit into Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw's new offense. There are plenty of other questions on offense, like whether the receivers will live up to their vast potential, whether a mediocre line from 2015 can improve at the tackle spots, and the overall staff turnover on that side.

“But the biggest question is about the quarterback and the system. Barker has the talent to be a quality SEC player and this is his third year in the program. But these are his third and fourth offensive coordinators (they serve as co-coordinators) in three years. He had moments of strong play when he started at the end of last year, but he ultimately struggled much as did Patrick Towles as games would grind on.

“Program sources are very happy about the impact of quarterbacks coach Hinshaw, but time will tell whether Barker is ready. He played well in the spring game but the jury's still out.”

What’s the biggest defensive storyline heading into the season?

JR: “The biggest defensive storyline is the question mark on the defensive line. If that's a major problem then finding six wins could prove really dicey. But if they're average or even close to it then Kentucky could be competitive with almost any team on the schedule, because the talent gap really has narrowed at most positions.

“Another theme would be the secondary. This may be the most heralded Kentucky defensive backfield in quite some time. The coaches believe 6-foot-4 sophomore corner Chris Westry could be a future first round pick, and fellow sophomore Derrick Baity had a strong freshman season as well, plus a good spring. Throw in sophomore safety Mike Edwards, who Mark Stoops has called Kentucky's best player, and the Cats have some great length and athleticism. They've got depth, too.”

What’s the outlook for the team this fall?

JR: “I think Kentucky will be straddling the .500 fence once again. If you look at the schedule it's fairly manageable aside from the fact that their annual out of conference opponent (Louisville) appears to be really good and they draw Alabama from the West. They get several winnable games at home this year and there's definitely an opportunity to get to the postseason. But the front seven on defense can't have a worst case scenario. I'll say 6-6.”