Kentucky seeks growth and third consecutive winning season

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              Kentucky head coach Mark Stoop watches his team during the NCAA college football Blue-White Spring Game Friday April 13, 2018 at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky., Friday, April 13, 2018.  (Silas Walker/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Coach Mark Stoops has Kentucky football heading in the right direction with consecutive winning seasons after three losing campaigns.

Now with 19 returning starters — the most in Stoops’ six-year tenure — the Wildcats have experience and confidence to take the program a step further.

“We expect more. We’ve been close,” said Stoops, who is 26-36 overall at Kentucky. “We’ve done some good things. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, we look forward to making a big jump this year.

“We’re tired of being close.”

Kentucky last posted consecutive winning seasons from 2006-09 under Rich Brooks, a stretch highlighted by three straight bowl wins ending in 2008. The Wildcats are coming off another 7-6 finish (4-4 Southeastern Conference) and second straight bowl appearance, but look to snap a four-game postseason losing streak dating back to 2009.

They believe they have the pieces to get it done with veterans on both sides of the ball, particularly a defense featuring nine returning starters. Kentucky’s offense is just as seasoned with 1,000-yard junior running back Benny Snell Jr. leading the way, though the priority is replacing mobile quarterback Stephen Johnson and four receivers.

Kentucky’s challenge remains navigating a challenging schedule that includes Georgia, the favorite to repeat as East Division champion. As much as the Wildcats believe they can again get the jump on opponents, they’re just as determined to close games better than last season.

Three of Kentucky’s six losses came by five total points, including two that could have improved their SEC East prospects. A 28-27 home loss to Florida was the most painful defeat as Kentucky’s defense left a receiver uncovered for the winning touchdown.

“Sometimes we’d level off when we had a lead or were playing well,” said senior safety Mike Edwards, who had team highs of 97 tackles and four interceptions last season. “We just weren’t as consistent last year and we’re working on that.”

Snell meanwhile intends to shoulder whatever is needed to make things happen offensively.

The 5-foot-11, 223-pounder is coming off his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and has boldly declared himself the nation’s best back. To that end he aims to take charge of a team he believes is capable of bigger things.

“It’s expected of me to not make any errors and do everything to make an impact on the field,” said Snell, who rushed for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017. “With the quarterbacks, they’re competing to be number one. But I’m number one at my position.”

Some other things to watch as Kentucky seeks a third straight winning season:

INEXPERIENCED QBS: Hoak is familiar with Kentucky’s offensive system, while Wilson passed for 2,133 of his 2,651 combined yards and 26 of his 31 TDs last season at Garden City (Kansas) Community College. Stoops has hinted at using both this season, but the question is how either one will react to their first SEC action.

IS BENNY THE BEST? Already Kentucky’s career leader with 26 rushing touchdowns and owner of several other school records, Snell can soar higher with another big season. Currently eighth all-time with 2,424 yards rushing, Snell needs 71 to supplant former backfield mate Boom Williams for seventh place. Sonny Collins is the career leader with 3,835 yards gained from 1972-75.

SIZE MATTERS: Kentucky’s 11 returning offensive linemen average nearly 311 pounds. Sophomore Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 340) is the largest on a defensive line averaging nearly 300 pounds. How the Wildcats stack up against the SEC remains to be seen, but they believe that bulk and mobility can move the ball offensively and plug holes defensively. “I’m excited about that group,” defensive coordinator Matt House said of his unit’s size. “I think they have worked hard.”

KEY GAMES: The Wildcats begin SEC play in Week 2 at Florida on Sept. 8 in search of their first win against the Gators since 1986. They host Mississippi State on Sept. 22 and visit Texas A&M on Oct. 6 in their only conference games against the Western Division. Defending East champion Georgia visits on Nov. 3.

SEASON OPENER: Sept. 1 against Central Michigan. Kentucky has won all six meetings.