Chances are that number will be fairly high. During an appearance on the UK Network National Signing Day television special, former Wildcat quarterback Freddie Maggard estimated that as many as 75 percent of this year's newcomers could see significant action this season.
The only thing is, this time they are bigger, stronger and faster than any group of UK signees – seemingly by a wide margin. And after looking at some of the key departures and shortcomings from last year's 2-10 squad, I started thinking maybe both our predictions were too conservative.
Here's a look at the top five players we're projecting to see the field early for the Cats in 2014. (Note: It's not necessarily the five best or the five highest-rated players, but the five players whose skills relative to the UK depth chart indicate may have the best opportunity to contribute early.)
CORY "C.J." JOHNSON:
This one is a mortal lock. The Cats said goodbye to their two senior defensive tackles, Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, at the end of the 2013 season and made the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Johnson a major priority from early in the recruiting process with an eye on him stepping right into a starting role. The Brooklyn (N.Y.) ASA College product has a tremendous combination of size and agility and a knack for making more individual plays than you typically see from defensive tackles, as evidenced by his team-leading 49 stops, 15 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season. The UK staff believes he can provide an inside pass-rush presence, which should open up even more opportunities for Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith to harass the quarterback off the edges.
Much like Johnson, Flannigan (6-3, 230) was recruited with an eye on stepping in immediately after the departure of senior Avery Williamson and inconsistent production from the rest of UK's linebacker corps. It sounds like Flannigan, who has drawn some comparisons to former Cat Danny Trevathan, may be targeted as more of an outside backer due to his impressive athleticism and prior experience as a safety at Blinn College, but it's hard to imagine the staff not finding a spot for him somewhereamong the three starters in DJ Eliot's scheme. Outside of junior-to-be Khalid Henderson, who came on late in the 2013 season, the Cats don't have a lot of proven players in the unit.
Another juco product, Stamps (6-0, 190) may be flying further under the radar than any other UK signee. He has played only one season of cornerback, but showed great promise at East Mississippi Community College, the same program that sent D-Line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and defensive end Za'Darius Smith to Lexington. He finished his sophomore season with 51 tackles, seven tackles for loss, nine pass break-ups and four interceptions in helping lead the Lions to the NJCAA national championship and a No. 2 team defense ranking. The UK staff loves his ball skills (developed as a receiver earlier in his career) and willingness to come up and hit hard in run support. Kentucky's corners did not produce an interception last season in 336 pass attempts by opponents, and that stuck in Stoops' craw all year long. A guy like Stamps can go a long way toward remedying the shortcoming. Competition should be very interesting this spring between guys like Stamps, Cody Quinn, Jaleel Hytchye, Fred Tilller and J.D. Harmon.
Make no mistake: At least one of UK's newcomers at wide receiver (and maybe all of them) will be in the main rotation this season in hopes of helping Neal Brown's Air Raid 2.0 offense get off the ground this season. My hunch is that it could be Baker (6-3, 215) who has as much raw potential as almost any player on UK's signee list. The Cleveland native camped with the Cats last July, and it was an eye-opening performance. He caught anything and everything thrown his way. Good balls. Bad balls. High balls. Low balls. He caught them. He made plays in traffic and played the ball at its highest point, like every star receiver at the next level does. Breaking down film of Baker during UK's NSD online program, assistant coach Vince Marrow compared his body type to a young Terrell Owens. Needless to say, the Cats haven't had too many bodies like that in the past. My hunch is the physical tools put him (and perhaps Thaddeus Snodgrass) in a position to help the UK offense the soonest.
When Alabama is your chief competitor for a defensive line prospect, you'd better believe he'll be a strong candidate to start for the Cats. There are two spots open, and we project those to be occupied by Johnson and Elam. The massive Elizabethtown (Ky.) John Hardin standout, tipping the scales at 6-6 and 360 pounds, could be a game-changer for the future of the UK defense. He'll be only the third U.S. Army All-American to ever play on the defensive side of the ball for the Cats, joining Micah Johnson and Glenn Faulkner. Elam has the ability not only to tie up multiple blockers and allow the linebackers to make more plays behind him, but also a freakish level of agility seldom seen in players his size. He's not just a space-eater. Like Johnson, he could become a strong interior pass-rusher. Conditioning is a concern, but in short bursts, Elam has shown the ability to take over games.