Kentucky’s streak of five consecutive bowls ended last season, and that puts some heat on coach Joker Phillips.
Kentucky always will be a basketball school – quick, find five UK fans who know (or, frankly because it’s March, care) that spring football opens Wednesday – but the recent spate of football success left fans grumbling when the Wildcats went 5-7 last season.
The poor season came about for one reason: an offense that, at times, was embarrassing. UK scored just 94 points in eight SEC games last season, and 30 of those came against Ole Miss; six times in league play, the Wildcats were held to 10 or fewer points.
Joker Phillips must solve the Wildcats' anemic offense.
Coach: Joker Phillips (3rd season)
Kentucky needs to decide on a quarterback, decide on a tailback, rebuild the line and determine the pecking order at wide receiver. Can all those fixes be made in 15 practices this spring? That seems doubtful.
Defensively, rebuilding the linebacker corps and the secondary are priorities. Coaches also need to find some players who can apply consistent pressure off the edge.
The biggest problem: Offense. The Wildcats went 5-7 last season largely because of a toothless offense that averaged just 259.8 yards per game. Kentucky ranked 118th in the nation in total offense, 114th in passing offense and 117th in scoring offense. There is a lot of work to be done here. Most of the skill-position players return, but three starting linemen are gone. The linebacking corps, which was the strength of the defense in 2011, must be rebuilt, and the defense also will be breaking in two new starting corners.
On the spot: QB Maxwell Smith. Morgan Newton was supposed to be the man as a junior in 2011. But he struggled mightily and lost his starting job when he suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder on Oct. 29. He’ll be sitting out spring practice and Maxwell Smith will take all the reps with the first-team offense. Smith was solid but unspectacular last season as a true freshman. Smith has the inside track to open the season as the starter, and incoming freshman Patrick Towles, who arrives this summer, will have a chance as well. Newton will have a lot of catching up to do when he returns.
On the verge: TB Josh Clemons. He broke into the starting lineup last fall in his third career game, but was lost for the season when he suffered a knee injury Oct. 8. He’s expected to be healthy for spring practice and should compete with a stable of rushers who played in his absence in the second half of the season. Clemons’ 87-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan in his second career game was a highlight of the season, and the Wildcats hope that explosiveness will return when he hits the field again.
General overview: There were problems all over the field for UK in 2011, and there was no extra month of practice for a bowl to help the coaches sort any of them out. Spring practice should focus on replacing some defensive cornerstones and finding more production from a disappointing offense. Finding a return specialist also will be key for Kentucky, which ranked 86th nationally in kickoff returns and 119th in punt returns. To right the ship after last season, some of those issues will have to be fixed before fall camp begins.
For in-depth coverage of Kentucky athletics, go to catsillustrated.com
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