This is the third in a series of posts examining how the personnel for the 2009 UK football season are shaping up.
For most Kentucky football fans, the '08 season was filled with frustrations -- Frustration with the quarterback situation, frustration with injuries, and finally, frustration with the receivers inability to catch the ball.
Whether one receivers "dropsies" were contagious, or if the group of young wide-outs were overly anxious to execute the catch-and-run, the sad fact is that many times they forgot the initial phase of the operation, which is to "catch."
Most blame the youth of the 2008 receiving corps as the primary culprit for their collective misdeeds, and if that is indeed the case, hopefully, for the sanity of UK fans and the sanctity of the program, we'll witness a maturity upgrade in the '09 season.
UK's 2008 Receiver Numbers
Points Per Game -- 22.6
First Downs Receiving -- 98
Average Yards Per Reception -- 9.8
Average Yards Per WR Reception -- 9.7
Average Yards Per TE Reception -- 15.0
Wide Receiver Touchdowns -- 6
Tight End Touchdowns -- 2
Players lost to graduation/injury: Dicky Lyons, Jr -- Lyons played in only six games before injuring his knee. He caught 33 passes for 264 yards (8.0 yards per catch), and two touchdowns. DeMoreo Ford played in seven games before sustaining a career-ending injury. He caught three passes for 56 yards (18.7 ypc), and one touchdown.
Returning players of note: Randall Cobb 5-11, 190 lb sophomore -- 21 catches for 197 yards (9.4 ypc), and two touchdowns. Kyrus Lanxter 6-2, 195 lb junior -- 23 catches for 196 yards (8.5 ypc), and one touchdown. Gene McCaskill 6-0, 175 lb sophomore -- 15 catches for 182 yards (12.1 ypc). E.J. Adams 6-0, 200 lb senior -- 14 catches for 180 yards (12.9 ypc). E. J. Fields 6-2, 190 lb sophomore -- No receptions last year (converted defensive back). Eric Adeyemi 6-0, 170 lb sophomore -- 13 catches for 108 yards (8.3 ypc). Aaron Boyd 6-3, 210 lb sophomore -- Five catches for 46 yards (9.2 ypc). Matt Roark 6-6, 200 lb sophomore -- One catch for 16 yards. Nick Melillo 6-2, 215 lb junior -- No receptions last year (walk-on).
Everybody; the fans, the coaching staff, and the media, knew going into the 2008 football season that the receiver position was a huge question mark for the Kentucky football team. After losing Steve Johnson, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme to graduation, the 'Cats were left with only two experienced receivers (Dicky Lyons, Jr and DeMoreo Ford), and a host of freshman and sophomore talent that had caught nary a pass, much less tasted the end zone.
Unfortunately, Lyons suffered a season-ending injury in the sixth game of the year versus South Carolina, and Ford never was fully healthy (knee), playing in only seven games, and eventually calling it a career after suffering a concussion versus Mississippi State on November 1, 2008 (doctors advised Ford to give up football). Adding to the misery was Aaron Boyd's (the highest rated UK receiver recruit in recent memory) fall fight with mononucleosis, which stole all-important practice repetitions away from the talented receiver, and ultimately led to his meager production.
What head coach Rich Brooks was left with was a receiver corps apt to drop passes, apt to run the wrong routes, and apt to run before making the catch.
A receiving corps, that at the end of spring practice, had Rich Brooks singing the praises of walk-on Nick Melillo, a Trinity High School grad, who had four catches for 43 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue-White Game:
"He's going to move ahead of some scholarship players. Right now he deserves a better look, and he deserves to move up the depth chart."
Joker Phillips also loves the kid Melillo:
"He's 100 mile per hour on every play. I told him he needed to gain weight and he could possibly be a guy like Jacob (Tamme). He comes back and he's gained 15, 20 pounds in the off-season. He does everything you ask him. He's a coach's dream. He's a tough kid."
Sounds like "Rudy" with talent.
If I were anyone other than Randall Cobb, I would be looking in the rear-view mirror, because everybody's job is up for grabs.
Brooks even took a stab at his receiving corps, disguised as praise for Cobb:
"He reminded me of Dicky Lyons. He made a one-handed grab that was behind him, and got it and gained extra yards. Those are the plays we need our receivers to make from time to time."
He's right about Cobb; he can be very special, but he needs help.
Similar to last season, the question in '09 is; who will take the pressure off Cobb? Who will emerge as a legitimate receiving threat, so Cobb won't have to endure double and triple-coverage all night, as Dicky Lyons did last year.
As of now, the top candidates are: Kyrus Lanxter, Gene McCaskill, and Eric Adeyemi. All are blessed with tremendous speed (along with Cobb, possibly the fleetest group of wide-outs in UK history), and the talent to out-maneuver their secondary counterparts. But, will they catch the ball? Will they demand an honest secondary?
I wish I had the answer.
In the late spring, however, Phillips had some complimentary words for at least two Wildcat receivers:
"Gene McCaskill continues to get better. I think he's got a chance to help us. I've got to get E.J. Fields coming because he's got a great body and great speed and he's got to help us. We've got to continue to get him better."
How the receivers perform this season will determine just how effective UK's offense will be. And if they continue down their current path, UK will be (to borrow a hardwood phrase) easy to guard. The opposing D-coordinators will have an elementary game-plan to put together -- "Spy" Cobb, and close hard on (Derrick) Locke and (Alfonso) Smith.
Maddening in all of this chaos, is the fact that all of UK's receivers are blessed with serious break-away speed; they can all gain separation on their defenders; and they all possess the physical tools of the trade. But, they must conquer the three mental aspects of the game -- Concentration, execution, and CONCENTRATION.
Freshman Receivers of Note
Chris Matthews 6-5 , 210 lbs -- The Los Angeles Harbor College transfer has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and he is expected to contribute right away. He's a Rivals 4-star recruit, and one of the top-10 JUCO prospects in the nation. Last year Matthews caught 80 passes for 1,235 yards and 11 touchdowns in only nine games. He runs a 4.5-40, and will push Kyrus Lanxter, Gene McCaskill, and Eric Adeyemi for playing time. He attended Dorsey High School, in Los Angeles.
Brian Adams 6-4, 210 lbs -- The Gainesville, Georgia native runs a 4.4-40, and will get a look at the receiver spot, as well as a possible punt returner. Adams is a 3-star recruit who played quarterback in high school.
North Hardin's LaRod King (6-6, 190 lbs) will also have the opportunity to earn some playing time in '09. He's a Rivals and Scout 3-star recruit who displayed his versatility in high school by playing quarterback, receiver, tight end, safety, and on special teams. Justin Bean (6-2, 180 lbs), a Tupelo, Mississippi product, is another freshman who will get a look at the wide-out spot. He's a 2-star recruit who caught 35 passes for 753 yards and six touchdowns in his senior season.
The Tight Ends
Players lost to graduation: Zero.
Returning players of note: Maurice Grinter 6-3, 260 lb senior -- 12 catches for 162 yards (13.5 ypc) and two touchdowns. T. C. Drake 6-6, 235 lb senior -- 12 catches for 204 yards (17.0 ypc). Ross Bogue 6-5, 250 lb senior -- One catch for eight yards.
The tight ends represent Kentucky's most solid offensive position on the field. UK returns experience, talent, athleticism, and depth at a position I thought was the most underused on the field last season.
Grinter, Drake, and Bogue all possess soft hands, and nimble feet. They provide the quarterback with a large target area, and an ability to make yards after the catch. While all three are terrific down-field blockers, I would like to see the trio thrown toward much more often.
Bogue came out of the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, but I expect Grinter to eventually win the job.
*T.C. Drake underwent successful sports hernia surgery earlier in the spring, but is expected to be a full strength by fall camp.
Randall Cobb is a stud, we all know that, but it will take more than Cobb's considerable talents to win football games in the SEC. That's just one more reason I would like to see UK's talented trio of tight ends utilized more effectively. With the receiving corps still posing a huge question mark, Grinter and company are answers, sitting there, unused.
Because of this (an unstable group of receivers), I foresee a major battle at the wide-out position this fall. Possibly coming out victorious in one of those battles with be JUCO transfer Chris Matthews. He has an excellent chance to earn a starting nod over one of the returning receivers, because of his demonstrable ability to catch the ball, while possessing the same speed numbers as his teammates. While it took UK's last JUCO receiver, the ultra-talented Steve Johnson, a full year to make an impact, Matthews isn't competing with Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons for playing time. I look for this JUCO to receive serious consideration for meaningful game action.
Frankfort High product, and converted cornerback E.J. Fields also provides an interesting option for "head coach of the offense," Joker Phillips. Fields is sure-handed and as athletic as anyone on the offensive side of the ball. And, the fact that he was asked to make the switch to a very crowded position tells me that the coaches like his chances of seeing the field.
But, regardless of which player, or players, cut to the front of the line, it should be an interesting fall camp as it pertains to the receiver slot. Lots of competition, and lots of eyeballs monitoring the progress of that competition.
The bottom line, though, is simple -- They have to be better, much better than they were last year, if UK hopes to continue the upward tic that they have carved out over the last three years.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!