April 15, 2009
A random, too-soon look at Kentucky, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. The high-flying attack that led the SEC in passing yards two years in a row in 2006-07 and was mostly responsible for the "renaissance" period in those years left with quarterback André Woodson, and when it's gone, it's gone: After heir apparent Curtis Pulley washed out in the preseason, Woodson's eventual successor, Mike Hartline, didn't have a single performance last year you might classify as better than "meh," bottoming out in midseason losses to South Carolina and Florida and finally ceding much of the work to undersized, scrambly true freshman Randall Cobb for the final month. Cobb couldn't throw -- if he'd attempted enough passes to qualify for the rankings, his 95.1 efficiency rating would have finished dead last among regular passers in a conference that included the offensive shipwrecks at Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt -- and the Wildcats were 1-4 when he took most of the snaps.
Cobb was elusive enough to run for three touchdowns in the narrow loss to Georgia, though, and any shred of playmaking ability is a precious commodity all of a sudden. Like Woodson at quarterback, no one emerged to replace leading receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson or do-it-all running back Rafael Little, and the only guy who had a chance, senior receiver Dickie Lyons Jr., went down for good with knee injury at midseason. Other than Cobb and possibly running back Derrick Locke, another midseason injury casualty, this fall's returnees were so nondescript that coaches used Hartline's season-best effort in the bowl win over East Carolina (in which Cobb didn't play at all) as an excuse to move Cobb to full-time receiver in the spring and leave the QB competition to Hartline and fellow pocket statue Will Fidler. Cobb was already fourth on the team in catches and yards and tied for the team lead with two touchdown catches despite alternating between positions and generally having no clue in his first months on campus; with a full-time commitment, he could immediately become the most dangerous weapon on the offense, although just how much of a compliment that would be is in the air.
What's the Same. While the offense foundered, last year's defense was a saving grace, at least in part because it was so old -- every one of top 15 tacklers was a junior or a senior. There's nothing particularly impressive about finishing eighth in the conference in scoring defense, unless you've finished at the absolute bottom of the league four years running; compared to the first five Wildcat defenses under Rich Brooks, last year's effort looked like a masterpiece. And though half that lot graduated, UK is still left with an impressive core of seniors at all three levels: Jeremy Jarmon on the line, Micah Johnson at linebacker and Trevard Lindley and Ashton Cobb in the secondary. Lindley and Johnson both could have turned pro and made a bid to go on the first day of the draft, a testament to the vastly improved talent on this side of the ball.
But (you knew there was "but" after the jump, right?) that talent still remains subpar by SEC standards: Even last year's much improved unit was ninth in the conference against the run, 11th in pass efficiency D and 11th in yards allowed. It only looked good in comparison to its truly wretched predecessors, and not by leaps and bounds:
It's probably not reasonable to expect significant improvement from last year, but with the offense still in major flux, the D will have to at least hold the line (literally and figuratively) if UK has any chance of remaining a bowl team.
Don't blame the big guys. There is one aspect of its game that Kentucky improved almost beyond belief: Pass protection. Woodson was consistently one of the most beaten-down passers in the country -- UK allowed more sacks than any other team in the SEC in both 2006 and 2007. Last year, in front of far less productive passers? The Wildcats allowed the fewest sacks in the conference, and finished fourth nationally by giving up just one takedown per game.
A lot can go into that number: Kentucky passed slightly less often than it did with Woodson, coaches may have tried to protect Hartline and Cobb with quicker, safer throws and given them a mandate to get rid of the ball more quickly, the elusive Cobb wriggled free of or outran a few tackles behind the line, etc. But a vast leap of that magnitude has to start with the offensive line, which returns no fewer than seven players with starting experience. Chief among them is senior Zipp Duncan, who has 26 consecutive starts at both guard spots but will move to left tackle, and Christian Johnson, who started 15 games in 2006-07 but redshirted last year; the three-way battle at right tackle is among a trio of veterans with more than 25 career starts between them, most by senior Justin Jeffries, who's had a hard time holding the spot down. It's a relatively undersized group (four potential starters, including Duncan, are listed under 300 pounds) and not intimidating in the running game, but the depth alone could make the o-line the strength of the offense, which it really needs to be.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. The offense can't have especially high goals after last year, but a good early sign would be some success against the defense in the first intrasquad scrimmages:
The first-team defense stopped the No. 1 offense on the first eight possessions. Included in the defensive stops were three turnovers: a fumble caused by a jolting hit from sophomore safety Winston Guy, recovered by senior linebacker Micah Johnson; an interception by All-America cornerback Trevard Lindley, which he returned 36 yards for a touchdown; and another pickoff by redshirt freshman cornerback Cartier Rice.
Yikes. The first offense did eventually get the ball down the field on the first defense that afternoon -- if, that is, you still consider the defense minus its three best players (Lindley, Johnson and Jarmon, who were all quickly pulled) the first unit.
More optimistically, the 'Cats are hoping they've found an every-down running back in Alfonso Smith after splitting carries between four different guys last year -- one of whom was Smith, who had a ho hum 313 yards on a little less than six carries per game as the third back behind Locke and Tony Dixon. Locke -- star of the 2007 upset over LSU as a true freshman -- has been by far the most productive runner when healthy, but he's spending the spring recovering from knee surgery and being buried further and further down the depth chart..
Best-Case. Kentucky has to hit the ground running out of the chute: After the must-wins appetizers against Miami (Ohio) and Louisville, the SEC slate comes in like a bear: Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and Auburn guarantee there will be no repeat of the 'Cats' fast starts the last two years; at best, with an upset over Carolina or Auburn, UK will be sitting at .500 at midseason, with a manageable four-game stretch against UL-Monroe, Mississippi State, Eastern Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Assuming the first four-game tour goes ok -- that is, 1-3 -- a clean sweep of the second one could set up seven wins and an unprecedented fourth straight bowl bid going into the closing gauntlet against Georgia and Tennessee. A lot will have to go right to get back to seven wins, but another "par for the course" year above .500 would go a long way toward entrenching UK as standard, respectable winner.
Worst-Case. The lack of firepower on offense is a glaring liability. And god help the 'Cats if they manage to lose to Miami (Ohio) in the just-negotiated opener in Cincinnati, which could be the prelude to an 0-6 start that would all but cement a passing of the sunny days and a return to the basement. With five UK is likely to go into as a favorite, it's hard to see it winning any fewer than four, but there are no guarantees within the conference, where some of the older players have experienced the depths of lopsided, 1-7 disasters in the very recent past.
Non-Binding Forecast. Kentucky is on its best three-year run in a good half-century, and almost matched its eight-win records in 2006-07 with the 7-6 finish last year, which it definitely was not supposed to do sans the great Woodson. Look closely, though, and you can see the outline of a return to bottom dweller form that belies the nearly identical records.
It's not just that UK was 2-6 in the SEC, or 0-5 against winning teams before upsetting ECU in the Liberty Bowl. The '07 team outgunned ultimately disappointing but competent outfits from Louisville and Arkansas, beat the eventual mythical championship, gave Florida a solid run and knocked off Florida State in the bowl game; the '06 team beat Georgia and Clemson. Last year's bunch not only had no notable wins, but barely escaped with lackluster hides it did get -- there was a six-point win over Middle Tennessee that ended with the Raiders on UK's one-yard line; later, there was a frantic one-point win over rebuilding Arkansas and another, two weeks after that, another one-point squeaker over perpetually lame Mississippi State. In between, the Wildcats were blasted to bits by Florida, 63-5, and followed the encouraging effort against Georgia in November with convincing losses to Tennessee and Vanderbilt to end the regular season. Excluding the gimme wins over outmanned Norfolk State and Western Kentucky, UK had two somewhat impressive efforts: A dominating defensive display in the opening win over Louisville, and a strong comeback to end the year over East Carolina. In between, the 'Cats were dangerously close of falling off the fence on the side of the "bad old days," when a bowl game was a distant memory.
This is the rubber year, then, for Brooks' tenure, which may have turned the corner just in time to hand the reigns of a proven winner to offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips. Another bowl bid of any kind would send Brooks out as one of the best coaches in school history. My guess, though, is stagnation for a roster that doesn't look very different from last year's in any notable way. That means another round of tight, low-scoring games, not all of which will fall the Wildcats' way again, leaving them just on the wrong side of .500.