The University of Kentucky Wildcats were the fairy tale story of the 2018 College Football season. With a number of key players leaving at the end of the year, can there be a sequel to the fairy tale in 2019?
For a program more accustomed to success on the court than the football field, 2018 was an exceptional year. Their 10-3 record was their best since 1977. They hadn’t been ranked in the AP poll during the season since 2007, but ended the season ranked 12th. The Wildcats had last been included in the final Top 25 rankings back in 1984.
Their game was in many ways a throwback to the 70’s and 80’s. With a run first offence, their success was built on a stingy defence. Allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game, the unit was the 6th best defence in the nation.
It allowed them to run out to a surprising 5-0 start to the season.
They’d shocked the college football world by beating 25th ranked Florida, 27-16, in game 2. Then in game 4, they shut down 14th ranked Mississippi State, 28-7. The eyes of the college football world were on Lexington.
An overtime defeat to Texas A & M ended the unbeaten run. Despite the loss, the defence had kept Kentucky competitive. Safety, Darius West, had tied the game in the 4th quarter with a 40 yard fumble recovery touchdown.
They bounced back to record wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri, overcoming a 14-3 deficit in the 4th quarter in Colombia. A Lynn Bowden Jr punt return touchdown got them within a score, then Terry Wilson found CJ Conrad with the last play of the game for the win.
With a season high 11th in the rankings, the Wildcats faced Georgia with an air of expectation. However, it wasn’t to be. A defeat to the Bulldogs, followed by a shock defeat to Tennessee, put the dream of an SEC Championship place to bed.
There was to be a happy ending to the fairy tale. The Citrus Bowl victory over Penn State was the first bowl game win for the Wildcats since 2008. After racing to a 27-7 lead, the defence just managed to withstand Trace McSorley’s attempts at a fairy tale of his own, holding on for a 27-24 win.
There are big losses from that Kentucky Wildcats defence for 2019.
If the fairy tale is to be repeated for 2019, it will be with a whole new list of characters. The big challenge facing head coach Mark Stoops, is replacing the sheer amount of talent lost at the end of 2018.
The defence has been decimated.
In particular, the secondary has lost all of the starters from last year. Lonnie Johnson, Derick Baity, Mike Edwards and Darius West are no more. That’s 7 interceptions and 23 pass break ups of production to replace. The Wildcats have bought in two junior college transfers at cornerback. Quandre Mosely and Brandin Echols will likely be the starting cornerback duo. Echols had 6 interceptions for Northwest Mississippi Community College last year, and looked impressive in the spring game.
In front of an inexperienced secondary, sits linebacker Kash Daniel. The senior will provide the leadership for the new look defence.
It seems ludicrous that I’ve made it 500 words in to the season preview of the Kentucky Wildcats without mention of Josh Allen. The outside linebacker was the talk of college football in 2018. His performances made him the 7th overall pick of the NFL Draft. Many, myself included, think he was a steal for Jacksonville.
How do the Wildcats even begin to replace Allen’s 17 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2019?
Not with just one man. They have two 4* recruits in Jared Casey and JJ Weaver who will see playing time this season. However, they will be behind Jamar Watson. He’ll look to make the next step, after being the man behind Allen last year.
The Kentucky Wildcats offence will be vastly different in 2019 too.
In 2018, Benny Snell Jr accounted for 1554 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns. It was his third consecutive 1000 yard season. He has been the undoubted star of this Kentucky team. Without him, the offence will have to look a little differently.
It is unlikely that one man will carry the full load that Snell has. Leading that backfield, however, will be Asim Rose. He accounted for 6 total touchdowns of his own in 2018 and actually had a higher average yards per carry (6.2) than Snell. Rose looked particularly impressive in the Wildcats spring game. He’ll be running behind an offensive line that has lost 3 starters from 2018, including Bunchy Stallings. They do return Landon Young, after the left tackle missed all of 2018 injured.
With all the change around him, the focus for 2019 will fall on quarterback Terry Wilson. His ability as a mobile quarterback helped keep the offence moving in 2018. He contributed over 500 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns. However, with Snell gone, it’s likely that he’ll be asked to throw more this coming season. He fell short of 2000 passing yards in 2018, and although he had 11 passing touchdowns, he also accounted for 8 interceptions. Wilson will need to show improved decision making and accuracy to lead the Wildcats to success.
Three key players to watch…
#67 Landon Young – Left Tackle
When Landon Young went down injured during an August practice last year, it was a big loss to the Kentucky Wildcats. He missed the entire season, but is back fit and healthy, and ready to lead the offensive line. The line has been key to Benny Snell’s successful Kentucky career. Now they will be tasked with giving Terry Wilson more time to throw, as well as creating the holes for Asim Rose.
Young was a big scoop for Kentucky’s 2017 class. The local boy was a 5* recruit out of Lafayette, and was voted the top offensive lineman at the US Army All-American game. In his freshman season, he accounted for 27 knockdown blows in just 7 starts. He was a part of an offensive line that were semi-finalists for the Joe Moore Award.
Landon Young is STRONG! As a former wrestling state champion, there aren’t many defenders who will beat him for strength. He follows through on blocks well, forcing defenders to the ground, which will give Wilson time to develop plays. He is also good at getting out to the next level which will be crucial in the ground game. He’ll be leading the way, literally, for the Wildcats in 2019.
#1 Lynn Bowden Jr – Wide Receiver
It’s a bold move to put the number 1 on your back. However, Lynn Bowden Jr has just cause. He is a truly dynamic playmaker and the go to guy in the Wildcats offence. However, his talents aren’t limited to the wide receiver position. He has been a key contributor on special teams, including returning two punts for touchdowns in 2018. As a former quarterback, he has drawn comparisons to Randall Cobb throughout his career. Incidentally, his tally of 67 catches was the most by any Wildcat since Cobb in 2010.
Those 67 catches broke the Wildcats sophomore record in a season that saw him lead the team in catches, receiving yards (745) and touchdowns (5). It was a natural progression for a player who received SEC Freshman of the Week honours in a 2017 win over Missouri. His progression will continue in 2019 as the focal point of the offence.
#31 Jamar Watson – Outside Linebacker
As mentioned previously, Watson looks set to be the guy to replace the production lost with Josh Allen’s transition to the NFL. It sounds like a tough ask, but Watson already had the jump on Allen coming out of high school. Where Allen was a 2* recruit when he came to Kentucky, Watson was a 3* recruit out of Bishop McNamara. Despite only playing football for the first time in his junior year, Watson was ranked as a Top 100 linebacker.
As a dual athlete, Watson played both basketball and football. His obvious athletic talent comes across on his tape. His speed is there to see in his high school footage. It is particularly evident on several interceptions he snagged during his high school career. It will be crucial for him, and Kentucky, that he develops this speed as a pass rush weapon if he is to be a true replacement for Allen.
He showed in 2018, his sophomore season, that he can produce on the field. In only 7 starts, he tallied 5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 3 pass break ups and 1 forced fumble. With more starting time, and more experience to hone his skills, you can expect to see a big uplift in those figures for 2019.
No place like home for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2019.
It would truly be a fairy tale for the Wildcats to repeat their success of 2018. It seems a huge task, especially with all the turnaround and transformation from last season. There is just too much production lost, and too many questions on how it will be replaced, to expect another 10-3 season.
The scheduling gods have shone on Lexington, however. The Wildcats only have four road games in 2019. Of those, a back to back road trip to Mississippi State and South Carolina could be crucial to their overall record. Although they beat both comfortably in 2018, those games were in Kentucky. They also travel to Georgia, in what will be the toughest game on the schedule by far.
They open up the season with two games against MAC opposition. The opener against Toledo will set the tone for the season. The Rockets averaged over 40 points a game in 2018, which placed them in the Top 10 points scoring offences. If the new look defence struggles to deal with that offensive fire power, there could be an opening day upset.
It may come early in the season, but the game 3 clash against the Florida Gators will be the make or break game. Last year, the win in Florida propelled the Kentucky Wildcats on a fairy tale journey. If they fail to win in Lexington on September 14th, the season, and the fairy tale, may be over before its begun.
Feature Image Credit: Guy Ramsey (UK Athletics)
All statistics courtesy of: www.sports-reference.com/cfb