Four Downs: Which Kentucky Wildcats Must Step Up in 2016?

If you polled Kentucky fans on who the most important players are going into this season, the results would likely yield many votes for third-year quarterback Drew Barker, a good number for speedy running back Boom Williams and maybe even a handful in favor of dynamic tight end C.J. Conrad or gifted wide receivers like Garrett Johnson or Dorian Baker. 

And those would all be good choices. Each player will be leaned upon heavily to get the Cats back to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.

But, while the so-called "skill" positions will typically draw most of the spotlight, it can also be argued that UK's chances of fielding a winning team will hinge even more on guys who seldom -- if ever -- touch the ball.

In this Fourth of July edition of AllWildcats' "Four Downs," we examine four Wildcats who must step up big in 2016 despite playing positions that do not always garner the most attention.

1. Courtney Love - Inside Linebacker

The Cats lost a boatload of tackles and veteran leadership when Josh Forrest graduated and was drafted this spring by the Los Angeles Rams. In most years, it would be asking a lot to replace a guy like that, but UK has a talented transfer from the Nebraska Cornhuskers waiting in the wings. Look for this to be Love's unit as he inherits the leadership role in the middle of the defense. He's coming off an impressive spring and is chomping at the bit to get back on the field during fall Saturdays after watching from the sidelines last season. At 6-foot-2 and close to 250 pounds, Love has the bulk and body type to help the Cats improve against the run this year after allowing a woeful 196 yards per game in 2015. Kentucky needs to be middle of the pack in the SEC in order to force offenses to throw the ball against what is expected to be an opportunistic secondary. Georgia occupied that territory last year at No. 7, allowing 156 rushing yards per game, so that's a decent improvement goal.

2. Kyle Meadows - Offensive Tackle

Kentucky enters the season with one of its most experienced offensive lines in recent memory. The Cats are in really good shape with Rimington Trophy candidate Jon Toth at center and a host of experienced guards like Ramsey Meyers, Nick Haynes, George Asafo-Adjei and Cole Mosier providing a nice foundation on the interior. Perhaps the biggest question mark entering the 2016 season is who will occupy the crucial tackle spots. On paper, UK has every other position accounted for to be a potent offense. But to do that, the Cats have to be able to set the edge in the running game and keep Barker upright in the passing game. Meadows, entering his junior season, needs to be an impact player. He's 6-foot-5, 302 pounds with the long arms and athletic feet you look for in a tackle, but, along with juco transfer Tate Leavitt and redshirt freshman Logan Stenberg, was a bit inconsistent this spring. The Cats really need all of them to step up early in camp so that the versatile Mosier can stay in the rotation at his more natural guard spot and that there's less pressure on the staff to rush signee Landon Young (a U.S. Army All-American) into action prematurely. 

3. Courtney Miggins - Defensive Line

Entering his second year in the program, the junior college transfer is expected to play a major role on UK's defensive front this season. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Miggins is capable of playing multiple techniques at both tackle and end. Wherever he lines up, he'll be needed to provide UK with a bigger pass rush from its down linemen. The Cats had a meager 17 sacks last season (among the lowest totals in FBS) and just nine in SEC play. With Melvin Lewis and Cory Johnson both departed, it's crucial for Miggins to step up and be a strong presence. Guys like Matt Elam, Regie Meant, Adrian Middleton, Kengera Daniel, Alvonte Bell, Tymere Dubose and newcomer Naquez Pringle really could all qualify for this designation.The Cats will need multiple players to emerge along the defensive front to improve on the 394 yards and 27.4 points per game allowed in 2015. Miggins is the prime choice here because he was specifically targeted out of the juco ranks to make a timely impact and has perhaps the best combination of physical maturity and athleticism in the bunch. A Za'Darius Smith clone would certainly be welcomed by Big Blue Nation.

4. Grant McKinniss - Punter

Technically, the specialists do handle the ball, so I'm hedging a bit in placing him here. But this typically unheralded position could be a pivotal aspect of UK's success this season. The Cats have said farewell to longtime punter Landon Foster and are expected to turn the job over to a freshman out of the high school ranks. McKinniss comes with an outstanding reputation and a rather uncommon four-star ranking out of Findlay, Ohio, where he averaged 40 yards per punt and converted 10 of 11 field goals as a senior, including a 52-yarder. He is probably the most hyped specialist to sign with UK since the record-setting Dustin Wynn out of Middlesboro High School in the mid-90s. Simply put, he's got an explosive leg. Being able to "flip the field" and give the defense a fighting chance may wind up being a huge key to posting a winning record, as it was in the past with stalwarts like Glenn Pakulak and Tim Masthay. That's a lot to ask of a freshman, but he appears to be up to the challenge.

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