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Debut in blue: Stoops, Kentucky open in Nashville

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Mark Stoops era gets underway with Kentucky hoping to change the culture of the program and erasing the longtime residue of losing.

The Wildcats open the 2013 season Saturday against Western Kentucky in a neutral-site game in Nashville, Tenn. They lost to the Hilltoppers early last season, one of the first signs that a bowl game wouldn’t be on the horizon in what turned out to be Joker Phillips’ final season as coach.

The only victories last season were against Kent State and Samford as the Wildcats finished 2-10 and turned to Stoops in an attempt to turn the fortunes around.

Western Kentucky also has a new head coach in Bobby Petrino, whose arrival after a one-year sabbatical has complicated the preparation process as what the Hilltoppers did in last season’s game will be vastly different this time around. Then again, Kentucky hopes to be different too.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown would eventually like to rev up the offense with downfield passing being the staple of the attack. But the Wildcats are shy on proven wideouts and the health of quarterback Maxwell Smith has been a running concern to date.

Smith will open the season by sharing the position with Jalen Whitlow, who was pressed into the starting lineup last season after Smith was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Smith also has been hampered with shoulder injuries in his time on campus.

How that rotation might play out is an unknown. With the season opener looming, Stoops is declining to name a starting quarterback. The topic is a sensitive one for the coach who is leading a program for the initial time.

“Everybody talks about it because it’s the quarterback, but it’s not different than any position,” said Stoops, the brother of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and former Arizona coach Mike Stoops. “If one person’s doing good, then they’re the starter. It they’re not, then the next person is in. That’s the way it is across the board.

“I know everybody likes to make a big deal because it’s the quarterback — and it is important - but you know, the first guy will go and we’ll see how it goes from there.”

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has his own challenges as the Wildcats are shy on proven commodities in the secondary and have been found lacking in defending the run in recent seasons. Eliot was a position coach at Florida State during Stoops’ reign as that school’s defensive coordinator and followed his long-time mentor to Kentucky.

The Wildcats have a quartet of solid players in the front seven in defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, defensive end Alvin Dupree and middle linebacker Avery Williamson. But that didn’t stop them from allowing 391 yards and 31 points per game last season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH against Western Kentucky

—QB Maxwell Smith was productive when he was healthy last season but the new coaching staff is unsure how much it can rely on him to avoid getting hurt. If he wins the job and stays healthy, he is a threat to pass for 3,000 yards. Smith passed for 332 yards and two touchdowns against Western Kentucky last year but also was picked off four times.

—RB Raymond Sanders is one of 33 players in school history with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and had a team-leading 669 last season. Durability has been a problem and more than a third of his 2012 yardage came against lesser foes Samford (123) and Kent State (115). The pressure is on him to stay healthy and record a 1,000-yard campaign in his final season on campus.

—DE Alvin Dupree split time at end and outside linebacker the past two seasons but new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has made him a full-time defensive end. He has 6.5 sacks last season while dealing with frequent double-team situations last season and should improve on that number with pass coverage no longer being one of his responsibilities. He had a career-best 12 tackles in last season’s game against Western Kentucky.

—SS Ashely Lowery will be on the field against the Hilltoppers despite pending DUI charges stemming from a single-car accident last May that left him in intensive care for a week. Kentucky is light in the back end so some have some theorized that coach Mark Stoops hasn’t suspended him yet due to the lack of depth at the position but Stoops has expressed that he is waiting on the legal system. “We’ll penalize him when and if these charges come about,” Stoops said recently. “Right now, we’re just going to move forward. There are a lot of unknowns about that situation.”