Kentucky Wildcats: Team Overview
By Jess Nicholas
August 30, 2009
Kentucky has gotten adept at exceeding expectations under head coach Rich Brooks, but if the Wildcats advance to the postseason this year, Brooks may have done one of his best jobs yet. The Wildcats have a void at quarterback, no playmakers in the backfield and the defense was hit hard by graduation. Special teams were a weak suit in 2008 and still are, and as usual, Kentucky has been hit with injuries in fall camp.
Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, FL, LT, C, RT, TE, QB, FB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 3 (RDT, MLB, RCB)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 4-8 (UA, AU, UF, UGA, UL, USC, VU, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 1-7 (UA, AU, UF, UGA, USC, VU, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 0-5 (UF, UGA, USC, VU, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Av
Defensive Line: Av (re-rated)
Defensive Backs: Av
Special Teams: Fr
Joker Phillips is head-coach-in-waiting at Kentucky, largely on the strength of his recruiting and his feel for offense, an offense that regularly makes gourmet meals out of bird seed and spackle. The base set is a pro-I, but Kentucky used the spread-option, the passing spread and probably would have fiddled with the Notre Dame Box had the opportunity presented itself. Kentucky is as multiple on offense as teams come, which is a necessity given that the Wildcats don’t have the athleticism to do any one thing particularly well.
The list of problem spots starts off with the quarterback position, where Mike Hartline is barely adequate. Hartline completed 55.3% of his passes in 2008, but threw for only 1,666 yards on 172 completions, an average of less than 10 yards per completion, a horrible stat. He threw 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Randall Cobb may or may not be the backup. He’ll start the year out at wide receiver and will be the team’s Wildcat formation quarterback, but if Hartline gets knocked out for any length of time, Will Fidler will probably be the player they go to. Hartline has decent athleticism, but his arm is below average and he’s not particularly fast. Fidler is a bigger body at the position, but has yet to get a legitimate tryout in a game. Sophomore Tyler Sargent rounds out the list along with signee Morgan Newton. Several players may play here before the year is out.
Cobb is not only the second-leading passer on the team, but he’s the leading returning runner. But Alfonso Smith is the likely starter. Smith does everything reasonably well but excels in no particular area of the game. Junior Moncell Adams is a human bowling ball at 5’7”, 230 pounds, while Derrick Locke is a scatback who is the team’s leading returning receiver. Signees Dakota Tyler and Donald Russell add more depth to the mix.Redshirt freshman CoShick Williams adds depth. Kentucky has decent talent at fullback, with John Conner ahead of A.J. Nance, but Conner is banged up.
Kentucky typically loses at least one receiver a year in fall camp, and this year was no different, as heralded redshirt freshman E.J. Fields was lost for the year. Fortunately for Kentucky, the starters are back, and there is enough depth that Fields’ loss won’t kill the Cats. Randall Cobb and E.J. Adams will get most of the work, but Kyrus Lanxter figures heavily into the mix as well. Sophomore Gene McCaskill had a good first campaign. Eric Adeyemi adds valuable depth along with Matt Roark and Chris Matthews. Sophomore Aaron Boyd, like Fields, will redshirt due to injury. The most underrated of the bunch is the starting tight end, T.C. Drake, who proved he could be a downfield threat in 2008. Maurice Grinter is part fullback, part tight end, and is one of the team’s best blockers.
Three starters return, but there are question marks regarding whether those players are good enough. Left tackle Zipp Duncan is the best of the bunch and is the line’s best athlete. Right tackle Justin Jeffries also returns, along with center Jorge Gonzalez. Jeffries and Gonzalez are blue-collar types who should be able to at least hold their own. Meanwhile, coaches are holding their breath concerning the guard slots, which appear to be the property of Stuart Hines on the left and Christian Johnson on the right.
Jake Lanefski will add depth to both sides and could unseat Hines before the start of the season, provided his knee holds up. Depth is scarce inside, but Kentucky seems to have a surplus of tackles. Marcus Davis will join Lanefski as a reserve guard, while Brad Durham, Billy Joe Murphy and Dave Ulinski are locked up in a battle for the reserve tackle slots. The question is whether the inside players can move opposing SEC defensive lines.
Only three starters return, but those three players are all all-SEC types. Moving to a 4-3 base a couple of seasons ago was the right move for the Wildcats, especially from the standpoint of defensive line play. Kentucky’s front seven should be stout even with the losses to graduation, but both the front seven and the secondary will be in a lot of trouble if injuries hit. The Wildcats finished a respectable 40th in total defense last year, good numbers for a team that often has to get by with smoke and mirrors.
Defensive end Jeremy Jarmoncould have started for any SEC team – until he was declared ineligible for his senior season, throwing Kentucky’s defensive end rotation into turmoil. Kentucky had stacked him next to Corey Peters, one of the conference’s most underrated tackles. The Wildcats really need for Ricky Lumpkin to get healthy and stay that way; if he does, he’ll pair with Peters to form a pretty formidable tackle combo.
With Jarmon gone to the NFL through the developmental draft, what had been a battle for the strongside end position disappeared: Both Collins Ukwu and Chandler Burden have grabbed starting positions. Burden figures to be better against the run, while Ukwu is a pure speed rusher. As usual, the key across the board is depth. Only one player, tackle Shane McCord, has any appreciable experience. The rest of the rotation is made up by complete unknowns. Greg Meisner, who is the size of some SEC running backs, will back up Ukwu at end.
A pair of redshirt freshmen, Taylor Windham and Michael Gardner, are battling to be Burden’s backup. JUCO transfer Marcus Crawford and little-used sophomores Antwane Glenn and Charles Mustafaa add depth inside. Health is the primary concern. (Editor’s note: Due to Jarmon’s dismissal, Kentucky’s defensive line has been re-rated. This re-rating is not included in this year’s annual “Rating the Units” feature.)
Middle linebacker Micah Johnson has NFL written all over him. Predictably, he is also hurt. Most expect Johnson to be 100 percent in time for the first game, but Kentucky will need to develop some depth behind him just in case. Flanking Johnson as starters are Sam Maxwell, who has plenty of experience, and sophomore Danny Trevathan, who has good potential. Depth is actually good inside, where Mikhail Mabry and Ronnie Sneed give Kentucky some options. Jacob Dufrene has played a good bit at outside linebacker in the past. Antonio Thomas and signee Ridge Wilson figure to get early looks. If Trevathan can come through on the strongside, this group should be pretty salty.
The best defensive back in the league may very well be Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley, but three new starters mean the Wildcats will be holding their breath anytime an opposing quarterback lets one go – at least until the rotation settles out. Safeties Ashton Cobb and Winston Guy got good experience last year; Cobb is in a fight for his job with Calvin Harrison. Randall Burden currently holds the cornerback job opposite Lindley, but Paul Warford and redshirt freshman Cartier Rice could have something to say about that. Matt Lentz adds depth at safety. Overall, the athleticism is good and there is experience here, but it may take a few games to get a rhythm going.
Brooks is typically high on his special teams, which is what made 2008 such a disaster, especially after the injury to Dicky Lyons Jr. Placekicker Lones Sieber returns, but he had briefly lost his job earlier in the year. Ryan Tydlacka will be the punter and if Sieber continues to have problems with consistency (he missed 8 of 19 field goals last year and 2 extra points), Tydlacka could end up doing double duty. The punt return game went downhill after Lyons’ injury, but kickoff returns were some of the best anywhere. Do-everything Randall Cobb figures to be the top return man in 2009.