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July 24, 2014

Kentucky preview

This is the fourth of a series looking at LSU's eight Southeastern Conference and four non-conference opponents.


Kentucky has not been a familiar opponent for LSU during Les Miles' previous nine seasons as coach.

The Wildcats and Tigers have met just three times. The last game between the two teams took place in Tiger Stadium three years ago when LSU pounded Kentucky 35-7. That season started a three-year run which has seen the Wildcats fall to the bottom of the SEC's Eastern Division.

Many people can recall the exciting three-overtime game during the Tigers' 2007 national championship season in Lexington. A talented Kentucky squad outlasted LSU 43-37 that afternoon. That Wildcats team won eight games. Kentucky has won a total of nine games the last three years.

Mark Stoops will be starting his second year as the Wildcats coach this fall. The rebuilding job is huge as Kentucky has dropped 16 consecutive SEC games. Only three of those losses have been by a margin of seven points or less.

Stoops will have 15 returning starters at his disposal, but no one expects the Wildcats to make a big move up the Eastern Division standings. If Kentucky could somehow escape the SEC East cellar in 2014, some progress would be made.

The Wildcats have fallen behind not only Louisville, but also Western Kentucky in the Commonwealth. Kentucky has lost three straight games to Louisville by an average of 13 points. Then, the Wildcats have been beaten the past two years by the Sun Belt Conference's Western Kentucky.

Stoops is encouraged about the prospects for this season.

"You're going to see a big improvement offensively," Stoops said. "We're still unsettled on who the starting quarterback will be. But, I'm confident that we're going to improve at the position. It starts with the players around him.

"Our wide receivers will be better. Four of our top five pass catchers were first-year guys in our program a year ago. Our leading rusher was a true freshman. Those guys being a little older, a little stronger and more experienced are going to help the quarterbacks as well."

Maxwell Smith, who passed for almost 1,300 yards last season, is back. However, he is coming off an injury which kept him out of spring practice. Sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker are in the competition there.

"Having four quarterbacks in the running is actually beneficial," offensive tackle Jordan Swindle said. "If one quarterback already had the job, he might have the chance to slack off. Since four are fighting for it, each has been working his butt off trying to make sure he is the starter."

The top returning rusher is Jojo Kemp, who averaged almost five yards per carry while gaining 482 yards. The top wide receiver is Javess Blue, who registered almost 600 yards on 43 catches in 2013. Four starters, including Swindle, return on the offensive line.

The face of the 2014 Wildcats team is defensive end Bud Dupree, who seriously considered bypassing his senior campaign for the NFL. Dupree made 61 tackles and recorded seven sacks last season.

"I have been doing a lot of work to make play-calls faster," Dupree said. "I want to know the scheme of things, knowing where to be on a certain play and knowing when to check if a receiver makes a certain motion. I have to go hard on every play and know where to be - right place at the right time."

Kentucky's next best defender lines up opposite Dupree on the line - end Za'Darius Smith. A year ago, Smith made 59 tackles with six sacks and another six quarterback-hurries. The Wildcats yielded 427 yards and 31 points per game last season - their poorest numbers in more than seven years.

"Our defense starts with Dupree and Smith," Stoops said. "They are talented defensive ends and great leaders. They are bigger than last year. They are what you want your ends to look like in the SEC. Both of them had a chance to go to the NFL last year. I am very thankful we have those guys this year."

Kentucky normally lines up with five defensive backs. All five starters at those positions last season are back. However, of those five returnees, only strong safety Ashley Lowery made an interception. Cornerback Nate Willis and nickel back Blake McCain each broke up five passes.

The biggest news since the end of last season has been made by Stoops and his staff in recruiting. Kentucky finished No. 17 in recruiting in 2014 and is ranked at the same No. 17 spot so far for its 2015 class.

"Recruiting is where it starts," Stoops said. "You have to have great players. Most of our prospects we were recruiting knew we were in for a rebuild and had a little bit of work to do. There was no mystery there.

"The contract extension I was given meant a lot to me because it shows the administration believes in the plan we have in place and the foundation we are laying. Good things are happening at Kentucky."

Dupree may not be around when the Wildcats begin to win. However, he is the program's biggest cheerleader.

"The fans have done a good job accepting coach Stoops through the coaching change with all the money they are putting into the new (renovated) stadium," Dupree said. "If I was a fan, I would see a coach caring about and changing a program.

"I would see a coach who is changing the practice facilities and is putting money into the nutrition program. I would really hop on his train and hold on."



Kentucky vs. LSU at Tiger Stadium
Saturday, October 18
Time/TV: TBA


2013 record: 2-10 overall, 0-8 SEC (seventh in Eastern Division)
2013 postseason: none
Coach: Mark Stoops (second year at Kentucky)
Returning starters: 16 (7 on offense, 8 on defense, 1 kicker)
Les Miles record vs. Kentucky: 2-1

All-SEC candidates (with 2013 statistics)
OT Darrian Miller, 6-5, 290, Sr.
DE Bud Dupree, 6-4, 265, Sr. - 61 tackles, 7 sacks
DE Za'Darius Smith, 6-6, 265, Sr. - 59 tackles, 6 sacks
KR Demarco Robinson, 5-10, 160, Sr. - 11 punt returns, 114 yards; 5 kickoff returns, 128 yards

Next: Ole Miss


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