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SEC Spring Practice Primer: Kentucky

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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The Wildcats have plenty of questions along the defensive front seven entering spring practice.

2015 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Offensive Returning Starters: 9 (RB Stanley Williams, WR Dorian Baker, WR Garrett Johnson, WR Jeff Badet, TE C.J. Conrad, OT Kyle Meadows, OG Nick Haynes, OG Ramsey Meyers, C Jon Toth)

Defensive Returning Starters: 4 (DE Denzil Ware, NB Blake McClain, CB Chris Westry, S Marcus McWilson)

Practice Opens: Mar. 8

Spring Game: Apr. 16

Storylines

1. Gran Opening

It was only a matter of time before Cincinnati offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was going to land a Power Five job. The surprise was that it wasn’t one bigger than Kentucky, which named Gran as the successor to Shannon Dawson after Dawson’s disappointing one-year stint in Lexington. Gran’s Bearcats offenses averaged 32, 34 and 34 points in three seasons despite quarterback injuries in all three seasons.

He inherits promising redshirt sophomore Drew Barker, who took over the starting role under center for the final two games of 2015, replacing the since-departed Patrick Towles (who will finish his career at Boston College). The Commonwealth native struggled in a high-pressure situation against Louisville last season with a bowl bid on the line, completing just six of 22 attempts and throwing two interceptions. How well Gran’s offense and Barker’s skill set mesh will be critical in determining whether or not the Wildcats finally end their long bowl drought.

2. Defensive Overhaul

Kentucky unexpectedly brings back just one starter in the front seven in outside linebacker Denzil Ware. The ‘Cats defense suffered a major blow late last month when defensive end Jason Hatcher was dismissed from the team following an arrest on charges of drug trafficking. Both full-time starters at linebacker must be replaced, as Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan, and their 167 combined tackles last season, move on. Redshirt freshman Eli Brown has bulked up and should help fill the void.

It’s time for junior nose tackle and former five-star recruit Matt Elam to make a sizable jump forward after recording 33 tackles in limited duty during his first two seasons. At end, look for sophomore Kengera Daniel to blossom as a sophomore, as well as junior Regie Meant. All jobs are open on the three-man line, so expect plenty of heated competition. Internally, the Wildcats hope it’s these three guys who step forward and leave no doubt who will be on the field for the first snap of the Sept. 5 opener against Southern Miss.

3. Barker’s Blind Side

The offense returns largely intact, but left tackle Jordan Swindle’s departures leaves the most important non-quarterback position vacant. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have two tackles on the roster with starting experience. Although George Asafo-Adjei and Cole Mosier combined for just four starts last season, Kentucky isn’t going into the spring totally blind regarding how they will replace Swindle.

Both Asafo-Adjei and Mosier have position flexibility, but their quickest route to the field will be at tackle with all three interior starters returning. Kicking over Kyle Meadows to the left side and letting the duo compete for the right side spot is always a possibility. This unit is a veteran group that should be an asset for Kentucky come September, but the ‘Cats need to use the next five weeks to figure out their fifth wheel.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.