Could this year be a return to the Big Blue offensive machine days of Tim Couch and André Woodson?
Word out of the scrimmage on Saturday is that the first team offense looks very, very capable. The reasons are Mike Hartline's apparently vast improvement (I have heard this often enough, and from enough different people, that I coming around to believing it), Randall Cobb's playmaking ability, and the emergence of Rivals.com 4* JUCO transfer Chris Matthews.
Matthews is 6'5" and 210 lbs. That is a big target at wide receiver, bigger even than Steve Johnson, who made so many huge plays at Kentucky. And Matthews can run -- he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, and that is SEC speed -- comparable to Alabama's Julio Jones and even faster than Georgia's A.J. Green coming out of high school. Matthews is the kind of receiver UK has not had around since Johnson left, and he is off to a much better start than Johnson -- if you'll recall, Johnson was a bit of a disappointment in his first year at the D-1 level, mostly due to the fact that he was not sufficiently focused -- late for class, late for practice, late paying his traffic tickets, etc.
Matthews is apparently the son of a Los Angeles police officer, and has much more focus and composure, at least so far, and it is showing up on the field, and in the classroom where he carries a 4.0 out of summer school. An injury to Gene McCaskill (the details of which I have been unable to find anywhere) allowed Matthews to move into the #1 spot, and his durability has allowed him to get a lot of reps there. Reps equal improvement, and Matthews is now firmly in the starting spot.
The story, though, continues to be the improvement of the offensive skill positions. Derrick Locke broke a long run and did not get pulled down from behind as he did last week, and Phillips says that Locke is hitting the hole and making cuts with the same explosiveness he had before the injury, which is remarkable, but in Locke's case, not really surprising. Locke is used to being told he can't do something and proving people wrong.
There really isn't much being said about the defense at the moment, obviously because the offense is the unit that was the biggest impediment to a better season last year. But according to Chip Cosby, Steve Brown is pleased with what the defense is doing. Coach Rich Brooks does mention that the tackling was sloppy yesterday, which is the kind of criticism you really don't know how to take -- it can either mean missed tackles, poor form, or both. Missed tackles have been a real bug-a-boo for Kentucky defensive units, even the well above average unit from last year, so I hate to hear that term being thrown around.
I am not the only one around the Commonwealth who is beginning to see the potential of this team to do some damage in the perennially tough SEC. John Clay has what can modestly called an optimistic (but not wildlly so) piece in today's Herald-Leader that foresees an 8-4 season for UK this year. I don't know about you, but 8-4 would leave me doing a serious happy dance, both for the team and for Coach Rich Brooks, who surely deserves an opportunity to celebrate just how far he has moved this program in the right direction.
The biggest issue right now seems to be figuring out the #3 quarterback. Will Fidler has locked up the #2 spot, and all Brooks will say about highly regarded freshmen Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton is that they look "like freshmen." That's not surprising, and anyone with an idea that two Rivals.com 4* guys could actually contend for the starting quarterback spot at an SEC school was not being realistic. You very rarely see quarterbacks at even the 5* level who can come in and start immediately in BCS conference football, and freshman starters beneath the 5* level usually happen only at moribund teams, or teams rebuilding from major losses.
So as we head into the last week of fall camp, which will be more about preparing for Miami of Ohio than anything else, Kentucky looks about as good as I can ever recall as a team. During the Woodson years, the defense was always an issue, and last year, it was the offense. This year, there is a chance that the team as a whole will be pretty good, and if that happens, this is the year that the Wildcats could make that transition from a team that is always picked last or next to last in the East to a team that can be considered at least a mid-pack contender.