1. Defensive Front Seven
The media and fans have gotten only one extended look at the Wildcats so far this spring, an open scrimmage on March 26, and the big takeaway from that workout was how the offense moved the ball with relative ease -- especially in the running game -- against the first-team defense. That wasn't all too surprising, though, given that UK has lost its top three defensive linemen (Melvin Lewis, C.J. Johnson and Farrington Huguenin) and its top four linebackers (Josh Forrest, Ryan Flannigan, Khalid Henderson, Jason Hatcher) from last year's team. Very few teams in the country -- if any -- are looking to replace so many key components of their front seven.
Kentucky will be looking for big things from massive defensive tackle Matt Elam (6-7, 360) entering his third year in the program. The former five-star recruit, who ultimately picked UK over Alabama, needs to play to his lofty potential in order for the Cats to compensate for the loss of Lewis and Johnson. Fans will also want to keep an eye out for the progress of Regie Meant and Adrian Middleton on the interior and Kengera Daniel and Denzil Ware on the edge. All four came to UK with strong recruiting resumes, and it's time for them to join Elam in the spotlight now. At linebacker, D-I transfers Courtney Love (Nebraska) and De'Niro Laster (Minnesota) will command a lot of attention after sitting out last season, but it was sophomore Jordan Jones who drew raves from Mark Stoops & Co. this spring. Despite the personnel losses, the UK staff is optimistic that the linebacker corps can be better in 2016.
2. Offensive Approach Under Gran
Kentucky has its third offensive coordinator in as many years with former Cincinnati OC Eddie Gran taking the reins this season. The first year under any coordinator is always a challenging transition for players, especially when they're doing it for the second year in a row. All reports out of the Nutter Training Center seem to indicate that the players have responded well to Gran, a demanding but personable teacher. Don't expect drastic changes from the approach that former OC Shannon Dawson used, but look for Gran to lean on his talented backfield and solid running game more than his predecessor did. Kentucky has a proven run-blocking line anchored by All-SEC candidate Jon Toth at center and a diverse group of backs ranging from the power style of Mikel Horton (6-1, 230) to the breakaway speed of Sihiem King and the versatile Jojo Kemp somewhere in between. (Stanley "Boom" Williams will miss the spring game while continuing to recover from offseason surgery.)
Sophomore Drew Barker appears to be the clear choice at quarterback, although juco transfer Stephen Johnson has reportedly impressed as well, easing concerns after the offseason transfer of Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips. At receiver, Ryan Timmons has generated a lot of buzz this spring for his improvement and overall focus entering his senior year. Redshirt freshmen Tavin Richardson and Jabari Greenwood add to a deep receiving corps that returns its top seven pass-catchers from a year ago. And perhaps for the first time since Jacob Tamme wore the blue and white, UK may have a big-play tight end in the form of sophomore C.J. Conrad. Gran has raved about his ability to put pressure on the defense, especially in the red zone.
3. Secondary As Strong As Advertised?
When the quarterbacks put he ball in the air Saturday, expect many of those passes to be contested by what many are describing as the deepest secondary that UK has fielded in recent memory. The Cats return long, athletic starters in Chris Westry (6-4, 195) and Derrick Baity (6-3, 180), who both displayed star potential as freshmen. Veteran corners J.D. Harmon, Blake McClain and Kendall Randolph bring a wealth of depth and experience for the nickel and dime packages. Darius West and Marcus McWilson are hard-hitting playmakers on the back end at safety. (Expected starter Mike Edwards will be held out of the BWG due to a minor injury.) Stoops & Co. have all kinds of options in the secondary. The "big if" will be whether or not the front seven can consistently force the opponent into clear passing situations, and when they do, can they get pressure on the quarterback? Kentucky finished the 2015 season with only 17 sacks, one of the lowest figures among defenses in the Power 5 conferences.
4. Fan Turnout
After disappointing finishes to the 2014 and 2015 seasons -- just missing bowl eligibility with a loss to arch-rival Louisville in the final game -- it's a big year for Stoops. It would be unfair to suggest there is a "hot seat" in Lexington, but fans are ready to see the staff start turning impressive recruiting victories into wins on the field. There has been significantly less buzz surrounding the football program this spring, so it will be interesting to see what kind of fan turnout the Cats get Saturday. The weatherman suggests a picture-perfect day at Commonwealth Stadium for the Blue-White Game. While it would be unrealistic to expect a 50,000 attendance similar to Stoops' first spring game at UK, how many fans show up might be a barometer of how they feel about the program's direction heading into 2016.