LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky players are determined to rebound big after ending the 2014 season on a six-game slide.
Despite finishing 5-7 in coach Mark Stoops’ second year, the Wildcats envision a bowl game among many goals in a dream-big mindset that includes possibly challenging in the Southeastern Conference East if everything comes together.
Junior quarterback Patrick Towles said, “people say six wins is the goal (to become bowl eligible), but we’re more talented than six wins. We have the talent to get to the championship game.”
However, much depends on how Kentucky begins, which is why players enter Friday’s first workout seeking a crisp start toward that end. At the very least, playing eight home games in newly-renovated Commonwealth Stadium should boost those postseason hopes.
On the other hand, the Wildcats must hurdle Florida, SEC preseason favorite Auburn, Missouri, Tennessee and in-state rival Louisville on home turf. All five played in bowl games last season, a quest that was in Kentucky’s reach before things collapsed under a daunting schedule.
There seemed to be no hangover during a spring of solid workouts.
“We just got off track a little bit,” said sophomore Boom Williams, Kentucky’s leading rusher with 486 yards last season. “We got off to a good start and were looking at doing things Kentucky football hadn’t done in a while.
“But we’ve learned from it and know it’s going to be hard every week and not be handed to us.”
Kentucky returns seven starters each on defense and offense including Towles, who passed for many of his 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns during the 5-1 start that fueled hopes of reaching postseason. Though he had a good spring, Towles enters camp having to battle redshirt freshman Drew Barker for the starting job.
The Wildcats also welcome new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson, who spent the last three years as West Virginia’s OC. The Mountaineers ranked 12th nationally at nearly 500 yards per game thanks to a quicker pace and balanced philosophy, traits that Stoops hopes will pick up where former coordinator Neal Brown’s pass-oriented scheme left off. Brown left to become Troy’s coach.
“I love the mentality that he has out of the run game,” Stoops said during SEC media days. “I think the nuances in the run game and getting the ball down the field are a few things that are different with coach Dawson.”
Defensively, the Wildcats must replace end/linebacker Bud Dupree and end Za’Darius Smith after both were drafted by the NFL. The good news is they return senior middle linebacker Josh Forrest, who led the team with 110 tackles and returned one of two interceptions for a touchdown.
The challenge is bouncing back from that slide in which Kentucky allowed nearly 44 points per contest, which Stoops believes is possible in Year 3.
“We have a long way to go,” the coach said. “I knew what I was doing when I took this job, and I’m very optimistic about where we’re at and where we’re going.”