LEXINGTON - After the largest attended spring game in school history, the highest ranked incoming recruiting class in school history and unparalleled offseason excitement, the Mark Stoops Era of Kentucky football gets its official beginning on Sat. Aug. 31 as the Wildcats travel to Nashville to face in-state foe WKU at LP Field.
Saturday’s contest will open up a new chapter of Kentucky football as Stoops will coach his first game in Kentucky Blue. Although a new chapter is opening, the Wildcats return several key components from last year’s team with 55 returning letterwinners (24 offense, 27 defense, 4 specialists) and 12 primary starters.
Offensively, the Wildcats return three quarterbacks in Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles. Whitlow was the primary starter last season, but no starting quarterback has been named thus far. UK also returns its top four rushers from a season ago with seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George leading the way after solid years in 2012.
UK brings back its top three tacklers from 2012 as well in senior linebacker Avery Williamson, junior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree and junior linebacker Miles Simpson. Williamson finished second in the SEC with 135 tackles last season, while Dupree paced UK in tackles-for-loss and sacks. The Wildcats also return safety Ashely Lowery, who finished fifth in tackles in 2012, while sophomores Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller return at cornerback after solid freshman seasons.
This marks the fifth-ever meeting between the Wildcats and Hilltoppers with Kentucky leading the all-time series 3-1. WKU claimed the 2012 battle 32-31 in overtime inside Commonwealth Stadium.
Cat Scratches: Stoops, Cats prepared for unknown in first game of new era
Each of the last three seasons, Kentucky and Western Kentucky University have faced off, breeding familiarity between the two in-state foes.
But as UK and WKU prepare to play a season-opening game – the final one of a four-year agreement between the two schools – few are talking about how well the Wildcats and Hilltoppers know one another. With new staffs and styles of play on both sides, it’s actually quite the opposite.
On one sideline will be Mark Stoops, who will take the field for the first time as a head coach. That first experience can be an overwhelming one – particularly for someone like Stoops who has waited so long for the opportunity – but Stoops has too much faith in the work he’s done these last nine months to let that get to him.
After a 7-6 season in 2012 that saw the Hilltoppers play in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Central Michigan, WKU returns 37 lettermen (16 offense, 18 defense, 3 specialists) from 2012, including 13 starters.
The WKU offense brings back six starters, including running back Antonio Andrews, who led the nation last year in all-purpose yardage. The Hilltoppers also bring back three members of its 2012 starting offensive line.
Defensively, WKU returns seven starters from last year’s squad that finished 26th nationally in total defense. The Hilltoppers return their top six tacklers from a season ago, including linebacker Andrew Jackson, who finished with 122 tackles and 17.5 tackles-for-loss in 2012.
WKU returns two starting specialists from 2012 in punter Hendrick Brakefield and placekicker Garrett Schwettman. Brakefield led the Hilltoppers last season with a 42.1-yard average, including a season-long 74 yarder. Schwettman made 10-of-13 field goals last year, including a season-long field goal of 42 yards.