It seems like a rough first year for Mark Stoops at Kentucky, but he managed to pick up a nice contract extension. What's generating all this enthusiasm?
Mainly recruiting. Kentucky has been very successful recruiting SEC-caliber talent since Mark Stoops came on board. For instance, the class of 2014 was ranked #17 in the nation and 2015 looks on course to meet or possibly exceed that ranking. As Kentucky upgrades it's talent, fans expect to see better performance on the field.
2013 was always going to be a rough season due to a lack of quality players, a new system for which Kentucky's personnel were ill-suited, and a brand-new head coach who had never been a top man before. The contract was mainly in recognition of his recruiting success, the number of butts he put in the seats, and a small bet that it pays off sooner rather than later.
So was there a feeling this spring like the Wildcats could take a step forward in 2014?
A fairly small step. Kentucky is painfully young now, and even though the first couple of classes are developing into starting and major backup roles, there are still an awful lot of holes that somebody has to step in and fill. The linebacking corps this season is a big unknown. The offensive line looked good in the spring game, but that is likely due to the inexperience of the defensive line they were facing.
We are hopeful for a small step - four or five wins would be the kind of improvement UK should reasonably expect to see.
LSU and Kentucky used to play regularly, but its been sparing in recent years. What do Kentucky fans think about taking a trip to Baton Rouge this Fall?
Obviously, at this point, it looks like another road loss for us. It's always difficult to play in Death Valley, and I'd be really tickled if Kentucky could just play a competitive half of football against the Tigers. I myself love Baton Rouge, I worked there in the 1980's and really enjoyed the place. I'm also a big fan of New Orleans and all the great food available in Louisiana, so a road trip down there from an opposing fan point of view is never a bad thing as long as you aren't too invested in winning the football game.
Any particular players generating excitement in Lexington this spring on offense or defense?
Kentucky's corps of running backs look exceptional, maybe the deepest and best we've had in memory. We are excited about the defensive ends as well, because Stoops & Co. have really recruited some good ones. The defensive secondary has been a major concern two years running, but they could take a step forward this season and that would be a really good thing.
Kentucky also has some exciting young receivers and a couple of older guys in the receiving corps who looked good in the spring. Several of our best were down with injuries, but we still have reason for optimism that the receiving corps is getting closer to where it needs to be.
Finally, we have a good stable of quarterbacks who seem to be better suited for the offense Neal Brown runs, and they have all matured quite a lot in the off season.
Any surprises this spring?
I was pleasantly surprised at how the offensive line blocked, and genuinely excited about the running backs, although we knew they should be pretty good. The receivers dropped very few balls, and that was really nice to see for a change. The defensive ends on the first team really made it hard on the second team offense, getting to the quarterback a lot.
Overall, the biggest surprise to me was the offensive line, and the improvement in the secondary. Patrick Towles has also changed a lot at quarterback, and he was way better than I expected.