March 28, 2010
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Wildcats.
Outside of the program, the story hasn't changed much for Kentucky over the last five years: Overall, the Wildcats are still a perpetual also-ran regularly projected at or near the bottom of the SEC East. Inside the program, though, new head coach Joker Phillips inherits slightly higher expectations. Since being promoted to offensive coordinator at his alma mater in 2005, Phillps has been a part of one of the most successful runs in school history, a window that included four straight bowl games, regular season wins over LSU, Georgia (twice) and Auburn, bowl triumphs over Florida State and Clemson, a mid-October foray into the top 10 in 2007 and a three-game winning streak against rival Louisville.
That quiet but persistent success belongs to the legacy of outgoing boss Rich Brooks, who was above all a survivor, narrowly escaping one of the hottest seats in the SEC after three straight losing records in his first three seasons to retire last winter as the generally respected captain of an outmanned ship. Phillips was a key part of that turnaround and won't substantially alter the program's course, which is still aimed at the modest goals -- eking out winning seasons, bowl invitations and the occasional upset -- Kentucky has always sought. But the old fallbacks, "rebuilding" and "it's just a basketball school," won't hold for nearly as long as they once did if the 'Cats fall back below the Mendoza line.
What's Changed. The UK defense under former coordinator Mike Archer could only be described as "spectacularly bad," wallowing at the bottom of the conference in total and scoring D three years in a row from 2004-06. Things have been markedly better the last two years under Steve Brown, who's managed to produce units that ranked in the top half of the country in yards and points allowed (a level Archer's defenses never achieved in either of those two crucial categories), though UK continued to struggle against the run and dropped off dramatically in the pass rush -- from second in the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2008 to dead last in both in 2009 -- in the absence of all-conference end Jeremy Jarmon.
The overall improvement came amid an apparent upgrade in overall talent, the wholesale departure of which will severely test Brown's progress this fall -- though the defense brings back seven starters, that doesn't include leading tackler Micah Johnson (the only player on the roster who legitimately qualifies as a "former blue-chip"), NFL-bound cover corner Trevard Lindley or either of the defenders who showed up on the coaches' All-SEC ballots in December, linebacker Sam Maxwell and tackle Corey Peters. Aside from sack leader DeQuin Evans (who built much of his stat sheet against Louisville, Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Kentucky), the returnees are an anonymous lot in search of new, as yet unidentified leaders to hold the line against regression to the Archer years.
What's the Same. Phillips effectively retooled the league's most high-flying attack under All-SEC quarterback Andre Woodson in 2006-07 into a functional, run-first scheme that's somehow managed to largely overcome a woeful passing game the last two years, especially in 2009, when the 'Cats deployed three different quarterbacks, finished dead last in the conference in passing yards and came in next-to-last in pass efficiency. In SEC play, the trio -- mostly Mike Hartline and true freshman Morgan Newton -- completed fewer than half its passes and threw more interceptions (8) than touchdowns (6) for a dismal 93.8 rating, worse than all but three other teams nationally in conference play.
Some of that stems from classic inexperience. Newton unexpectedly took over as the permanent starter when Hartline went down with a season-ending knee injury in the upset over Auburn, acquitting himself respectably enough down the stretch -- especially in a three-touchdown, zero-interception effort in a November comeback at Georgia -- to hold the "incumbent" title over Hartline going into the spring. Newton was erratic, but not mistake prone with just three interceptions in 135 passes, none in the last three games; physically, he already resembles Woodson at an NFL-ready 6'4", 220, has some mobility, and had an impressive array of offers as a recruit, including Florida, Miami, Clemson and South Carolina, suggesting he has more than enough talent to emerge as one of the conference's young breakout players in the next year or two. At the very least, with every key receiver coming back, the passing game should emerge from the conference cellar.
Good luck with that, kid. Newton's fate along those lines could be significantly set back by major attrition in front of him: Four regulars (three of them multiyear starters) are gone from an offensive line that finished second in the SEC in sacks allowed after leading the conference in 2008. Prior to that, UK allowed the most sacks in the league in 2006 and 2007, a gap that can be explained in part by the post-Woodson emphasis on the run, but still a foreboding sign for replacing the guys who turned that number around as upperclassmen. Of the new crop, only guard Stuart Hines (who started every game as a sophomore) and tackle Brad Durham (who's started seven over the last two years) have played significantly.
Small arms fire. No amount of uncertainty on the line or in the pocket will take the ball out of the hands of the offense's undersized spark plugs, running back Derrick Locke and all-purpose dynamo Randall Cobb, who combined to account for more than half of the Wildcats' total yards from scrimmage and established themselves as the only reliable playmakers. As the top two rushers, Locke and Cobb each had more than twice the yards on the ground of the No. 3 back, and finished first and third on the team, respectively, in receiving. Both were honored with all-conference nods by SEC coaches as two of the league's top four producers in all-purpose yards.
If there's any critique in such a heavy reliance on two players, it may be one of quantity over quality: Locke's longest run of the season was only 31 yards, and though Cobb was a threat from anywhere on the field over the first half of the season -- he broke seven plays covering at least 25 yards as a runner or receiver in the first seven games -- his big-play ability declined as the offense leaned more heavily on his contributions as a shotgun runner from the "Wild Cobb" formation after Hartline left the lineup, which took a direct toll on his contributions as the team's best receiver. This is a relatively minor complaint (Cobb still accounted for 99 yards on the ground at Vanderbilt and 101 in a near-upset against Tennessee), but the more time Cobb can devote to receiver, and the less often defenses can key on him as a runner, the more dangerous and consistent the offense can be as a whole.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Phillips declared the quarterback derby "a three-man race for sure," throwing wildcard Ryan Mossakowski into the mix for equal snaps with Hartline and Newton when Operation Win! kicks off this week. Mossakowski is another tall (6'4"), guru-approved slinger -- depending on which gurus you asked, he was rated higher than Newton on certain lists of last year's incoming quarterbacks -- who missed his chance to get in on last year's lackluster rotation thanks to a shoulder injury and subsequent redshirt. Phillips wants to whittle the competition down to two as quickly as possible, and here's guessing that if all goes according to plan, the potential of the young guns will cut the consistently mediocre Hartline out of the mix before the end of the spring.
Best-Case. There's some realistic hope for competent play from the quarterback, which could foster an actual passing game, further open things up for Cobb and Locke and offset what figures to be another pretty sketchy defense. The schedule offers a chance at three-game winning streaks at the beginning (against Louisville, Western Kentucky and Akron) and the end (against Mississippi State, Charleston Southern and Vanderbilt); add the annual upset during the three-game October home stand against Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia, and another 7-5 finish is waiting with a fifth straight bowl bid -- maybe even back to Music City Bowl four the fourth time in that stretch.
Worst-Case. There are red flags everywhere: New coach, ineffectual quarterbacks, revamped offensive line, lack of playmakers on defense, all heightened by the usual questions about the talent level relative to the rest of the conference. There's a very real danger of the offense becoming all Randall Cobb, all the time, which was almost the case by the end of last season, and which opposing defenses will take over a semblance of balance. Any regression by the defense, minus all of last season's best players, will make winning in the SEC a near impossibility save for Vanderbilt and maybe Mississippi State. With this many key areas just waiting to go wrong, 4-8 is a very real possibility.
Non-Binding Forecast. Assuming some improvement from the quarterback, whoever it is, there are basically five built-in wins between the non-conference patsies, Vandy and one of the toss-ups at Mississippi State or Louisville. Throw in a South Carolina or Ole Miss in the 'W' column, and 6-6 looks like the probable destination, as usual. Status quo, but barring a revelatory turn from Newton or Massakowski, it will have to do for now.