Editor's note: This is the sixth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Kentucky Wildcats.
LEXINGTON, Ky. | Mark Stoops doesn't need to sugarcoat it. He couldn't if he tried.
There wasn't much sweet about his first season as a head coach.
Stoops' Kentucky team went 2-10 in 2013, lost all eight of its Southeastern Conference games to extend its conference losing streak to 16, and finished in the bottom three in the league in scoring offense, rushing offense, total offense, scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense.
"You know, I really tried not to ever, you know, throw everybody under the bus, including myself and the team -- but we just weren't very good," Stoops said at the conclusion of this year's spring practice. "We're better. We're still not where we need to be, but we're better. We're at that point where you can really start to feel that improvement."
And there's reason to believe that improvement will be reflected on the field. Kentucky coaches feel better about their quarterback play than a year ago. They like the strides the Wildcats have made physically. They're excited about an incoming freshman class that ranked 17th nationally.
How any of that translates to wins and losses is anyone's guess. Kentucky likely remains a year away from a significant leap on the field. Still, Stoops was happy with the jump from his first spring on the job to his second.
"I love the leadership," he said. "I like the energy of our team. I think we're learning how to work, learning how to go about our business, and fundamentally we're improving."
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT KENTUCKY
Who's the quarterback?
This one was the most frequently asked during spring practice, and it went unanswered. But there were strong hints.
SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
Sophomore Patrick Towles -- a redshirt last season after playing in five games as a true freshman in 2012 -- ran the first series of the Blue-White Spring Game with the first-team offense.
And though offensive coordinator Neal Brown cautioned reporters not to "read into that overly," Towles' improvement was apparent. He spent much of the offseason working with a private coach on his footwork and mechanics and appeared to come out of the spring with a slight lead on redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker.
"Every part of me -- every single part of me -- wants this," Towles said. "I'm doing everything I can do get there. If I don't get there, it's not the end of the world. But I'm gonna do everything I can to."
Whoever starts at quarterback, Brown expects Kentucky to be better than a year ago, when Maxwell Smith -- who sat this spring after shoulder surgery -- and Jalen Whitlow platooned at the spot.
The Wildcats were good enough at quarterback this spring to ask Whitlow -- one of the team's most dynamic athletes -- to move to wide receiver. He opted to transfer instead.
Where are the Wildcats most improved?
Running backs coach Chad Scott came into the spring excited about his group. Nothing happened to dampen his enthusiasm.
"I'm still giddy," Scott said. "Ain't no doubt. We're talented."
Kentucky could have as many as five viable running back options in the fall, a significant upgrade from last season.
The likely top Cat is Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, a junior who rushed for 348 yards and 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore with the Huskers. Heard has "home-run ability," Scott said, and he won't be UK's only heavy hitter.
Sophomore Jojo Kemp, Kentucky's leading returning rusher with 482 yards in 2013, enters the offseason healthy after battling ankle injuries much of his freshman season.
Health is the biggest question for junior Josh Clemons, who's missed the past two seasons with knee and Achilles injuries. As a freshman, he was Kentucky's leading rusher through six games before a knee injury cost him the rest of that season.
"I feel good," Clemons said. "I mean, I got through last spring, too, but it doesn't stop here. I got to get through (fall) camp."
Freshman Mikel Horton, an early enrollee who went through spring practice, and Stanley Williams can add depth in the backfield.
Can anybody catch the ball?
Kentucky's "Air Raid" offense largely was grounded last season, due in large part to a lack of production at wide receiver.
Senior Javess Blue was the team's leading receiver last season, his first after transferring from Butler Community College. He caught 43 passes for 586 yards and four touchdowns. No other Wildcat wideout caught more than two touchdown passes.
But there's help on the horizon.
Sophomore Ryan Timmons showed offensive versatility as a freshman, catching 32 passes for 338 yards and rushing 12 times for 91 yards. He figures to have an increased role this season.
Fellow sophomores Jeff Badet and Alex Montgomery battled injuries in the spring but are expected back for the fall. Freshmen T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass enrolled early and participated in spring practice, and three more talented freshmen -- Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and Garrett Johnson -- will be on campus this summer.
Will Kentucky be able to stop anybody?
The Wildcats showed gradual improvement defensively in 2013, and despite the loss of leading tackler Avery Williamson, there are reasons for defensive optimism.
Those start with the front four, which should be solid, particularly at defensive end. Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree figure to be the strengths of Kentucky's defensive line. Both pondered jumps to the NFL after last season, but both returned and have improved. There's depth at end with Jason Hatcher and Farrington Huguenin coming off promising seasons.
Stoops admits that Kentucky needs to "continue to bring some guys along inside," but coaches have high hopes for redshirt freshman Regie Meant and a pair of junior college transfers, Melvin Lewis -- who redshirted last season after transferring from Fullerton College -- and newcomer Cory Johnson.
Linebacker is "a big question mark," Stoops said, and it went unanswered in the spring.
Promising linebacker TraVaughn Paschal missed spring practice with an injury, but Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson made strides, and junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan -- who committed early to Kentucky and stuck with the Cats as Oregon made a late recruiting push -- will fight for playing time in the fall.
Cornerback Nate Willis missed most of the spring with an injury, but Kentucky still made some progress in the defensive backfield. Junior college transfer A.J. Stamps fills a void by providing athleticism at safety.
"The secondary was a big concern of mine," Stoops said. "I feel like we're getting better."
But really, how much better is Kentucky?
This is the big one.
The Wildcats' early schedule is more forgiving than in recent years. Rival Louisville moves to the final game of the season for the first time, and there's a bye week after a Sept. 13 trip to Florida.
UK's overall talent has improved. The Cats are bigger and faster than a year ago.
Still, there's considerable ground to be made up. And though Kentucky wasn't immune to the typical spring-ball optimism, the coaching staff is taking a guarded approach into 2014.
"We're better," Brown said. "Are we where we want to be? No. I think we're a year away from where we've got a chance to be really good."