HOOVER — Kentucky finished with its best record in Mark Stoops’ fourth season in Lexington, Ky., with a 7-6 record.
A victory over Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and Louisville in the final week of the season clinched Kentucky’s first bowl game since 2010. The Wildcats lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
However, making the bowl game is seen as a big success for the program by Stoops.
“It’s nice to come in here year five and build on some positive momentum,” Stoops said.
The team’s 4-4 mark in SEC play was its best record since the 2006 season.
Returning for his senior season, Stephen Johnson will be the starting quarterback for Kentucky. Last season he threw for 2,037 yards, with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Johnson was forced into action when starter Drew Barker struggled against the Florida Gators.
“We’re really proud of Stephen,” Stoops said. “He got thrown into the fire at the Swamp. The great thing about Stephen is he has a great demeanor. He never gets too high, he never gets too low.”
Johnson is among the 19 returning starters for Kentucky. The Wildcats return eight players on offense, nine on defense and two on special teams.
Benny Snell Jr., a sophomore running back, will look to build on his 186 carries for 1,091 yards in 2016. He set Kentucky freshman records with those yards. He also set the record for most touchdowns in a game (four), most touchdowns in a season by a freshman (13) and most 100-yard rushing games by a freshman (five).
Snell Jr. will have larger role in 2016, as starter Stanley Williams left after his junior season. Williams had 171 carries for 1,170 yards and seven touchdowns.
Garrett Johnson, a senior wide receiver, led Kentucky in receptions with 39 for 585 yards. He will look to extend his 11-game streak of catching a pass.
The Wildcats defense will be anchored by linebacker Jordan Jones and safety Mike Edwards. Each recorded 100 tackles or more last season. Jones tallied four sacks and Edwards came away with three interceptions.
Kentucky will kick off its season on Sept. 2 at Southern Mississippi.
Head coach: Mark Stoops
2016 record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 19
Toughest question Stoops faced: How close you are to contending?
Stoops’ reply: Oh, how close we are to contending? You never know. You guys covered this league for a while. You’ve seen — I remember a few years back, I believe the team that won both sides didn’t win a league game the year before. We are not concerned about the rest of the league. I know this about the league, the league’s not backing up. Nobody we’re playing is backing up. We’re certainly not backing up. We’re worried about us getting better to put us in a position to contend each and every week.
You need to know: While Kentucky lost one 1,000-yard rusher in Stanley Williams entered the NFL draft, but they still return another one, in Benny Snell Jr. He set records for a freshman in yards, touchdowns, 100-yard rushing games and rushing yards in a single game. Stephen Johnson will enter the season after backing up Drew Barker to begin last season. The defense returns two 100 tacklers, in linebacker Jordan Jones and safety Mike Edwards.
Best player quote: It was an incredible feeling going into that stadium. My whole thing was to just stay ready. As soon as I knew I was the number two guy, I knew I had to stay ready the entire season. Going into that game was a little bit nerve racking. I have never been in a stadium that big, with that many people. But I was just excited. After that I had the support of teammates going forward. – Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson on being forced into action in “The Swamp.”