SEC preview: Kentucky

The Sports Xchange

First-year head coach Mark Stoops has embraced the challenge of building up a Kentucky football program long viewed as the laughingstock of the Southeastern Conference.

It certainly isn't an overnight task nor will anyone be surprised if the Wildcats experience a losing season. But changing the culture of the program is the first step and the hope is that victories will eventually follow.

Being competitive in 2013 will be greatly enhanced if sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith can remain healthy after suffering shoulder and ankle injuries last year. Smith is competing for the starting job with fellow sophomores Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles and completed 68.7 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and four interceptions in four games last season.

While Smith may be the best option, Stoops is proceeding cautiously and limiting Smith's practice workload.

"Absolutely, we worry about injury," Stoops said. "Just like last year, we know what can happen here with injuries, especially with quarterbacks so we've got to have a lot of guys ready. Right now, it seems to be fine but we're being a little bit cautious with him and limiting some of his throws."

Smith is the aware that Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown have concerns.

"They tell me, 'try not to land on your shoulder,'" Smith said. "It's going to hurt. If a 300-pounder takes me down and I land on my shoulder, I know it's going to hurt like heck. I know that."

Kentucky is thin at wide receiver and Stoops -- a defensive-oriented coach -- also knows the Wildcats have struggled to defend the run in recent seasons. Building up depth in the program is a major priority.

The first test of how much progress is being made will be the season-opener against Western Kentucky on August 31.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Wildcats open the season on August 31 against Western Kentucky, which is also breaking in a new coach in Bobby Petrino. The following game against Miami (Ohio) is a must-win affair as the slate picks up in toughness afterwards with a nonconference game against powerful Louisville and the SEC opener against Florida, a team which has routinely pummeled Kentucky in recent seasons. The Wildcats need to win their opening two games to have any legitimate chance at experiencing a winning season.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Buying into the philosophy of the new staff is the first step as Kentucky had the reputation of a soft program under former coach Joker Phillips. Keeping quarterback Maxwell Smith healthy is exceedingly important as the passing game was nearly nonexistent without him on the field last season. The defense needs to toughen up but the Wildcats have a star middle linebacker in Avery Williamson and veteran defensive tackles in Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Improvement by a young secondary and an unproven receiver group is pivotal for Kentucky to spring any upsets.

AREAS OF CONCERN: The Wildcats lack experienced receivers and will be hoping a newcomer or two emerges as a solid threat. Holdovers Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and A.J. Legree combined for 57 receptions without a single touchdown catch. No other receivers in the program have caught a pass at the major-college level, which presents ample opportunity for junior-college transfer Javess Blue and true freshman Jeff Badet, Alex Montgomery and Ryan Timmons.