Scout/Jeff Drummond

Four Downs: Top questions facing Kentucky Wildcats in spring football

Biggest questions for the Cats as they open spring football practice.

1. Is There A Quarterback Competition?

It's hard to suggest that anyone other than Stephen Johnson should be considered Kentucky's starting quarterback heading into spring practice after he came out of the proverbial bullpen to save the Wildcats' 2016 season when Drew Barker went down with a back injury in Week 3. Johnson led UK to wins in seven of the last 10 regular-season games, including a stunning upset of arch-rival Louisville, and a bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl. He finished with 2,037 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air while rushing for 327 yards and three more scores. Johnson should be even better as a senior after another spring under his belt, but it will be interesting to see if a healthy Barker can challenge. Mark Stoops has been fairly adamant since arriving in Lexington that every year is an open competition across the board. The hunch here is that Barker will remain Johnson's backup, but it's important to remember that he was one of the nation's most talented signal callers when he originally signed with the Cats, and he showed glimpses of that big arm with four touchdowns in the season opener. If nothing else, look for the competition to make both players better. Kentucky also has redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak, junior Luke Wright and early freshman enrollees Danny Clark and Walker Wood on the field this spring. 

2. Who Emerges in UK Backfield?

Kentucky will return one of the nation's most productive running backs in the form of Benny Snell Jr., who rushed for a UK freshman-record 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The Cats know what they have in Snell, a powerful, between-the-tackles runner who can keep the chains moving and a fantastic red-zone back. The big question is can they find the same kind of quality depth that they had following the departure of Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp? Williams was a "home-run threat" anytime he touched the ball, and Kemp was the rugged, reliable veteran who came up with big plays every time one of his teammates was injured or simply needed a blow. Rebuilding that kind of depth will be a major priority for UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who will give a long look to junior Sihiem King, redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and early enrollee Bryant Koback this spring. The 5-foot-9, 172-pound King has some of the same break-away attributes that Williams had, while the 6-1, 212-pound Rose is a versatile run/catch option. Koback (6-0, 193) suffered a broken leg during his senior year, but has been timed under 4.4 during his high school career.

3. Can The D-Line Take A Step Up?

The Cats appear to be rock-solid at linebacker and the secondary heading into 2017. There are some big-time stars on the back end of the defense with guys like All-SEC linebacker Jordan Jones, hybrid end/linebacker Denzil Ware, outside linebacker Josh Allen, and safety Mike Edwards. The key to those guys being able to maximize their talent may hinge upon the play of the defensive line. Naquez Pringle (39 tackles, 2 TFL in 2016) showed signs of being a force at nose tackle as the season progressed, and many junior college players make a big jump between their first and second years in the program, so he's one name to watch. Another is former U.S. Army All-American Matt Elam, who will somehow be entering his senior year. It seems like just a proverbial yesterday ago that he was committing to the Cats over Alabama. Things have yet to come together for the 6-foot-7, 360-pound mountain of a man, but he's still got time left to write a storybook ending in a year when many regional and national observers think UK could be a darkhorse pick in the SEC East.  Senior Jacob Hyde, juniors Tymere Dubose and Adrian Middleton (5.5 TFL in 2016), and redshirt freshmen Ja'Quize Cross and Kordell Looney will also be under the microscope this spring as the Cats attempt to get tougher on the interior. 

4. Best Group of DBs in UK History?

Fans may someday look back on the 2017 season as the Golden Era of defensive backs at Kentucky. On paper, it's the deepst group of talent the Wildcats have ever assembled in the secondary. UK will return proven starters Derrick Baity and Chris Westry at the two main corner positions with former four-star prospects Davonte Robinson, Jordan Griffin and Tobias Gilliam behind them. In almost any other season in Lexington, at least one and maybe all three of those guys would have played a significant role for the defense. Also joining the mix will be January enrollees Cedrick Dort and Lonnie Johnson, who drew rave reviews at the high school and junior college levels, respectively. It's an absurd amount of raw, physical talent and a testament to the kind of recruiting prowess Stoops has. Next question: how to utilize all of them?

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