As I sit at my desk watching out of one eye NatGeo’s Life Below Zero (a must view) and listening to my dachshund Molly sing the song of her people (incessant barking), I'm pondering the 2017 edition of Kentucky Wildcat football. Every year we Cat fans look at the new season with excitement, and often we leave it ready for basketball season to start. But this year there seems to be something different about it. The pieces seem to be in place for a year we'll all remember.
Kentucky is coming off a 7-6 campaign that ended in the TaxSlayer bowl in Jacksonville. So the foundation is laid for the excitement and bold prognostications. Before I offer my humble opinion on how this year will go, I'd like to do a plus/minus assessment of this edition of the Big Blue. So here goes.
The schedule: Seven home games at the Big Supermarket (also known as Kroger Field). Of those games, The Cats play host to Eastern Kentucky (shoutout to my man, Cameron Carmical, an EKU basketball signee), Florida, Eastern Michigan, Missouri, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Louisville. The Cats should be either favored or at least competitive in each of those matchups.
SEC-level athletes: The Cats have vastly improved the quality of athletes on campus in Lexington on both sides of the ball. It should really show up this year.
A power game identity: Led by offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and behind a massive front line that averages around 315 lbs. and power back Benny Snell Jr., the Cats should be able to establish a quality run game to enhance Stephen Johnson’s ability to be successful in the pass game. Definite strength.
Defensive improvement: New defensive coordinator Matt House brings an attitude of aggressiveness to a defense that improved by leaps and bounds when coach Mark Stoops took over the operations last year. Led by All-SEC LB Jordan Jones, the Kentucky defense should be very fast and very aggressive.
A great kicker: It can't be overstated how valuable a solid kicker can be to a team, and Austin MacGinnis fits the bill. He’s consistent, he’s accurate, and he has a big leg. I think he will be kicking on Sundays next year, but for now let’s enjoy him on our team!
Can Johnson improve in the pass game? I think so, but the ultimate test will be when teams stack the box on UK and dare the senior QB to throw the ball. The Cats have to be able to throw the ball effectively to be able to win. This could turn into a positive quickly.
Punt/Punt coverage: Let’s face it. We were awful last year in this area. Good football teams can flip the field and make things rough on opposing offenses. We didn’t. But we do have former EKU coach Dean Hood who is specifically special teams coach. Hopefully Coach Hood can develop our special teams into strength.
Pressure the opposing QB: Another bad area. We could not get consistent pressure on the QB out of the front seven. I think this area will be improved under coach House. The Wildcats can't allow opposing QB’s time to pick apart the secondary, and we have a really good secondary.
Win consistently: UK has the look. Great facilities, great uniforms, naming rights, athletes, coaches, you name it. Now it’s time to win. All the above doesn’t mean anything unless you’re winning. It’s all in place. It’s time to produce.
Shane E. Shackleford is a retired coach and teacher. Reach him via e-mail at email@example.com.