(Part 12 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Armed with eight returning starters on both sides of the ball, Kentucky is seeking to continue its climb up the SEC ladder.
Kentucky (7-6, 4-4) achieved three milestones in coach Mark Stoops' fourth year in Lexington by compiling its first winning season since 2009, defeating chief rival Louisville (41-38 in the regular season finale) for the first time since 2010, and making its first bowl appearance in five years (a 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl).
With the majority of its firepower back, the Wildcats are looking for further improvement from a unit which ranked ninth in the SEC in scoring (30 points per game) and 10th in total offense (420.3 yards per game). Kentucky will need to do a better job of protecting the football after ranking dead last in the conference and 107th nationally with a negative-7 turnover margin.
Four starters return from a powerful offensive line. Besides ranking 20th nationally with 234.2 ypg, the Wildcats were the only team in the SEC with two 1,000-yard rushers.
Senior left tackle Cole Mosier, junior center Bunchy Stallings, senior right guard Nick Haynes and senior right tackle Kyle Meadows are back, with sophomore Logan Stenberg taking over at left guard.
Stanley "Boom" Williams (171 carries, 1,170 yards, 7 touchdowns) is certain to be missed, but the return of sophomore Benny Snell (186-1,091-13) helps offset the dropoff. Snell averaged 5.9 yards per carry on his way to gaining Freshman All-America accolades. Redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and junior Sihiem King will spell Snell.
Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson enters his first full season as a full-time starter after guiding the Wildcats to a 5-4 record in nine starts last fall. Replacing the injured Drew Barker, Johnson threw for 2,037 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, and finished as the team's No. 4 rusher with 327 yards and three scores. Barker, who missed the final nine games with a back injury, goes into camp as the backup.
Senior Garrett Johnson (39 receptions, 585 yards, 5 TDs), the team's leading receiver, is back along with senior Dorian Baker (14-208-2) and junior tight end C.J. Conrad (19-262-4).
Four of the top five tacklers return from a defense which gave up 31.1 points per game (11th in the SEC), 228.2 yards rushing (12th), 206.1 yards passing (5th) and 434.3 total yards (9th).
Spurred by junior Jordan Jones (109 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks), the SEC's third-leading tackler, the linebacker corps remains intact. Senior Courtney Love (76 tackles), junior Denzil Ware (70 tackles, 12 TFL, 5.5 sacks) and junior Josh Allen (62 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 7 sacks) round out the group.
Senior nose tackle Naquez Pringle (39 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack) and junior tackle Adrian Middleton (35 tackles, 5.5 TFL) return to the defensive interior, with sophomore T.J. Carter (11 tackles) moving into a starting spot at end.
Senior strong safety Mike Edwards (100 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 INTs) was the leading tackler among SEC defensive backs in 2016, while junior Chris Westry (43 tackles, 1 INT) returns at cornerback. Junior Derrick Baity (42 tackles, 3 INTs) takes over at the opposite corner. Junior Darius West is the projected starter at free safety after missing the entire 2016 campaign due to a preseason knee injury. Appearing in 10 games as a reserve, West recorded 17 tackles in 2015.
Senior Austin MacGinnis gives the 'Cats one of the nation's best clutch kickers. McGinnis converted 16-of-19 field goals, including game-winners against Mississippi State (51 yards) and Louisville (48 yards).
Sophomore punter Grant McKinniss punted 58 times for a 39.2-yard average.
2017 KENTUCKY FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 at Southern Miss 3 p.m.
Sept. 9 Eastern Kentucky TBA
Sept. 16 at South Carolina* TBA
Sept. 23 Florida* TBA
Sept. 30 Eastern Michigan TBA
Oct. 7 Missouri* TBA
Oct. 21 at Mississippi State* TBA
Oct. 28 Tennessee* TBA
Nov. 4 Ole Miss* TBA
Nov. 11 at Vanderbilt* TBA
Nov. 18 at Georgia* TBA
Nov. 25 Louisville TBA