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2019 Tennessee Football Opponent Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

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Can the Wildcats sustain their momentum from a great 2018 season?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats

Head Coach: Mark Stoops (10-3, 36-39 overall)

Conference: SEC

2018 Record: 10-3

The Wildcats are coming off of one of the best - if not the best - seasons in school history.

Mark Stoops finally put it all together and the end result was a win over the Florida Gators for the first time in 32 years, a winning SEC conference record for the first time in 41 years, and just the third 10-win season in school history.

Kentucky also finished 11th in the final USA Today coaches’ poll and 12th in the final AP poll. It was the first time the school has finished in either of the final rankings since 1984.

Can Stoops and co. continue the momentum as they head into 2019?

Coaching: Stoops was hired as head coach of the Wildcats in 2013 after serving as the defensive coordinator at Florida State for three years.

It took him three seasons at Kentucky before recording his first winning season - a 7-6 record in 2016 - but hasn’t finished with less than seven wins in a season since.

On top of the aforementioned 2018 success, Stoops also had five players drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, the most since 1979.

Eddie Gran begins his third year as assistant head coach/offensive coordinator. He also serves as running backs coach, which has been the driving force of Kentucky’s offense over the past few years.

The defense will be manned by first-year coordinator Brad White, who will also enter his second year as outside linebackers coach. White joined Kentucky in 2018 after six years with the Indianapolis Colts and helped former Wildcat Josh Allen become a top-10 draft pick.

And the special teams will be ran by a familiar face in Dean Hood, who is now on his second year as coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Offense: Kentucky currently holds five quarterbacks on the roster, but with junior Terry Wilson leading the pack, the position should be settled heading in to the 2019 season.

Wilson is a dual-threat quarterback who does most of his damage with his legs, but can still throw the ball effectively at times. He’s a near-perfect fit for what Gran likes to do on offense.

The Cats lost their all-time leading rusher in Benny Snell Jr, but Asim Rose - who averaged over six yards per carry last year - will likely be the No. 1 running back. Rose is easily the most experienced back on the team, considering the fact that he’s surrounded by a group of freshman. Rose’s health/productivity may determine how far this offense can go in 2019.

Lynn Bowden Jr, a former 4-star recruit and 2018’s leading receiver returns for his junior season, which is great news for Wilson and the rest of the offense. That’s because the next three leaders on the team in terms of receiving yards are now gone, including tight end C.J. Conrad, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants.

The tight end group is deep and versatile. Tight ends coach Vance Marrow recently claimed the current group is “better” after Conrad’s departure, which speaks to the talent of the group. 6-foot-6, 263-pound sophomore Justin Riggs looks to be the favorite to start, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the entire corps proved to be effective by season’s end.

Offensive line coach John Schlarman will have to replace right tackle George Asafo-Adjei and right guard Bunchy Stallings, but he has plenty of promise in sophomores Darian Kinnard and Austin Dotson, as well as junior Luke Fortner. The left side of the line will remain intact as well as the center position, which is great news for a unit that relies a lot on cohesion and chemistry.

The return of 5-star recruit Landon Young will be an immediate boost and the offensive line should be a position of strength this year.

Defense: The defensive line will need to step it up after the departure of many talented players that resided in the second and third levels of the defense.

Eight players will man the line’s rotation, making depth a small concern. If the Wildcats can find effective play from the unit, it will help ease the transition for the linebackers and the secondary.

It will be no easy feat to replace Allen and his 17 sacks that led the SEC and garnered him National Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2018. Boogie Watson, one of the team’s more underrated players returns, but outside of him, there’s not many answers.

Such was said by White - the team’s defensive coordinator - after the Spring Game. According to him, there was “still plenty of work to do” in the matter of finding the “Jack” linebacker that will make the pass rush go.

As for inside linebacker, Kash Daniel returns as one of the team captains and was the leading tackler from last season. The unit will revolve around him, but keep an eye on WILL linebacker Chris Oats, who could have a big year in 2019.

The secondary, like the linebackers, lost a lot of talent from last year, as well. Losing all four starters from the Citrus Bowl is never good, but the safety position has plenty of players returning, so there should be some comfort in having those players on the roster. Davonte Robinson, Jordan Griffin, and freshman Moses Douglass are some names to watch throughout fall camp.

JUCO transfer Brandin Echols has done a nice job so far during the offseason and should find himself starting at cornerback on opening day. But outside of he and Cedrick Dort, there is a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the rotation of the group. Jamari Brown and Quandre Mosely are a couple of names to keep an eye on as they try and make their way up the depth chart.