Kentucky's impressive 42-0 football victory over Miami on Saturday began to at least answer a couple of "elephant in the room" questions related to the potential success of the 2009 football Wildcats: Will Mike Hartline be better, and will Derrick Locke be as good?
A firm, yet cautious "yes," is how I answer to both. Hartline was obviously more confident, more accurate, and less hesitant than last year, and Locke was the same power+speed machine he was before his knee injury. Both terrific signs for the fortunes of UK football in '09.
And since we haven't delved into either the quarterback or running back positions in our preseason previews thus far, let's take a look at what UK has to offer from those spots in 2009:
Mike Hartline -- 6'6", 206 lb junior: In 2008, Hartline threw for 1,666 yards, completing 172 of 311 passes (51.3%), throwing for nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Ohio native started 9 of UK's 13 games -- Kentucky's first eight games, then after a Randall Cobb injury, the Liberty Bowl. UK has posted a 7-3 mark (including Saturday's win) in Hartline's 10 career starts.
Versus Miami on Saturday, Hartline posted outstanding numbers -- 18-27 passing (66.7% completion rate), 222 yards, and two touchdowns. Just as important, zero turnovers. Clearly, Mike Hartline has played his best two games as a Wildcat, in his last two games: Versus ECU in the Liberty Bowl, he was 19-31 (61.3% completion rate) for 204 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Combined, in his last two games, Hartline has thrown for 426 yards on 37-58 passing (63.8% completion rate), three touchdowns and one pick. Not bad at all. Sure, his seemingly rapid improvement has come against non-SEC opponents, but when judged against what he accomplished last season in the pre-conference schedule, his two most recent games have provided Rich Brooks with far superior results.
A large part of Hartline's improvement has been due to the upgrade he's enjoyed at the receiver spot. With the addition of Chris Matthews to a receiver corps already boasting Randall Cobb, Hartline now has two targets, at least similar in talent, to Andre' Woodson's collection of Mr. GoodHands -- Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson, Dicky Lyons, Jacob Tamme, and Rafael Little. And with the demonstrated ability of tight ends T. C. Drake, Ross Bogue, and Maurice Grinter to catch and run, along with the danger a now-healthy Derrick Locke poses as a pass catcher, Hartline finally has a group of receivers who make the grab, and know what to do next.
Hartline also showed on Saturday that he can pinpoint a pass longer than 10 yards (a concern of many) -- His two fades to Cobb and Matthews in the second quarter were both perfectly thrown, and they were both over 20 yards. Hartline's passes, both long and short, were "zipped" and on-target, with but a few exceptions.
So, what are the possibilities? -- Well, with the addition of Matthews at the receiver spot (as well as the tight ends and the now-experienced backup receivers), combined with Hartline's new found confidence, arm strength, and accuracy, it would not come as a surprise if Hartline were to ultimately make a Bob Beamon-like leap from 11 touchdown passes (in 2008) to the mid-20's or higher this season. That would be HUGE for this Kentucky football team, and could quite possibly result in the 'Cats challenging to win 8-9 (dare I say 10?) games.
Will Fidler -- 6'4", 229 lb junior: The Henderson County alum has played in four career games before this season. He has completed three of four pass attempts, for 26 yards. Fidler's incredible high school career ranks him fourth in Kentucky high school football history with 9,395 yards passing. He threw for 92 touchdowns in his career, 45 of those in his junior season alone.
It was good to see Fidler get some time on the field Saturday. He responded by going 2-3 for 21 yards. If one were ever worried about Fidler's arm strength, worry no more. He was throwin' fastballs! It's always comforting to know that if the starter goes down with an injury, his replacement can throw the ball.
"Wildcat" Randall Cobb -- 5'11", 188 lb sophomore: Last season Cobb threw for 542 yards and two touchdowns on 52-99 passing (52.5% completion rate). He also threw five interceptions. Cobb rushed for 316 yards on 79 carries (4.0 ypc), almost exclusively from the quarterback spot.
On Saturday, Cobb rushed the ball once, scoring the easiest 11 yard touchdown in the history of UK football.
That's about all we saw of the "Wildcat" formation on Saturday (other than a couple of handoffs). So possibilities are what we're left with. And I think we'll find, over the course of the season, the possibilities afforded UK out of the formation will be endless.
I applaud coach Brooks and Joker Phillips for wisely opting not to reveal too much of the "Wildcat" package, especially in a game versus a MAC opponent. Keep in mind, though, the same mantra may be in effect in UK's next outing versus U of L, but as the season rolls along toward relevance, it will be great fun to witness the evolution of UK's newest offensive wrinkle.
Ryan Mossakowski -- 6'4", 208 lb freshman: Coming out of high school in Centennial, Texas, Mossakowski was named an All-America by SuperPreps and PrepStar. For his career (cut short by a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder his senior year) Mossakowski threw for 7,433 yards and 51 touchdowns. He also contributed on the ground with 799 rushing yards and an additional 20 touchdowns (from the quarterback position). Although Mossakowski is considered to have one of the strongest arms among the nation's freshmen signal-callers, his 64.7% completion rate his junior year seems to indicate the young man is quite accurate, also.
Mossakowski is a serious redshirt possibility. Couple his frosh status with his arm injury (which he has recovered from), and "redshirt" quickly comes to mind.
Morgan Newton -- 6'4", 217 lb freshman: Newton, Indiana's 5A Mr. Football, was named an All-America by a litany of publications -- Parade, SuperPrep, The Sporting News, MaxPreps, and ESPN/Rise Magazine. He also picked up Gatorade Indiana Football Player of the Year honors. Newton was rated the No. 6 quarterback prospect by Scout.com. In his storied high school career, Newton threw for 4,284 yards and 37 touchdowns, to go along with 2,617 yards rushing and another 37 touchdowns on the ground. In his senior year alone, Newton accounted for 3,602 yards of total offense, and 48 touchdowns for Carmel High School -- He threw for 1,938 yards (22 touchdowns) and rushed for 1,664 (26 touchdowns). Newton led his team to the 5A championship game two years in a row; winning in his junior year, and losing (late in the game), his senior season.
Coach Brooks has intimated in recent weeks that he is open to the possibility of redshirting both Mossakowski and Newton. Frankly, if Hartline continues to play well, I see no reason for either quarterback to waste a season of eligibility.
The Running Backs
Derrick Locke -- 5'9", 190 lb junior: The Hugo, Oklahoma native has played in 19 games (going into this year); he's rushed for 824 yards on 157 carries (5.2 yards per carry), and six touchdowns. He's also caught 30 passes out of the backfield, good for 281 yards (9.4 yards per reception) and one touchdown. Locke has also been adept at returning kick-offs -- 16 returns for 430 yards (26.9 yards per return) and a touchdown. In 2008, a season cut short by a torn ACL, Locke contributed 303 rushing yards on 63 carries (4.8 ypc), and one touchdown. From the air, Locke caught 23 passes for 195 yards (8.5 ypr) and a touchdown. He also excelled on special teams by returning 11 kick-offs for 314 yards (28.5 ypr), and one electric return for six versus Western Kentucky (Locke is only the fifth Wildcat to return a kick 100 yards for a touchdown).
Versus Miami, Locke rushed eight times for 61 yards (7.6 ypc), and a touchdown, moreover, he convinced me that he hasn't lost any of his power or speed after suffering his knee injury last year. For someone who was reportedly out of shape, Locke sure shook, rattled, and rolled his way through the RedHawk defense. I realize Miami, OH isn't Georgia or Florida, but he looked like the old Derrick and ...
... quite simply, if Derrick's healthy, he's the No. 1 back.
Alfonso Smith -- 6'1", 208 lb senior: Smith, out of Louisville's Waggener High School, has played in 36 career games, rushing for 712 yards on 155 carries (4.6 ypc) and six touchdowns. He's also recorded 29 catches for 322 yards (11.1 ypr) and two touchdowns. The speedy Smith has proved to be a very capable kick return man; he's returned eight kick-offs for 182 yards (22.8 ypr). In 2008, Smith rushed for 313 yards on 74 carries (4.2 ypc) and two touchdowns, he also caught 16 passes for 204 yards (12.8 ypr) and one touchdown. He returned five kick-offs for 114 yards (22.8 ypr). Smith ran for a career long 38 yard run against ECU in the Liberty Bowl.
Against Miami on Saturday, Smith ran for 36 yards on 7 carries (5.1 ypc). He's an extremely talented back, but unseating Locke as the teams best back will be a tall task, probably a bit too tall. But, Smith has proved to be elusive and fast, as well as affective catching the ball out of the backfield. He'll get his share, and if Locke struggles, he'll get more.
Moncell Allen -- 5'7", 225 lb junior: In 25 career games Allen has rushed for 241 yards on 49 carries (4.9 ypc), and one touchdown. He's also caught seven passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. In 2008, Allen played in 12 games, rushing for 202 yards on 38 carries (5.3 ypc) and one touchdown. New Orleans' second favorite son (behind Dicky Lyons, Jr.) also corralled five passes for 39 yards (7.8 ypr) and one touchdown.
"The Turtle" rushed eight times for 57 yards (7.1 ypc) and a touchdown on Saturday. Allen continues to impress, and is seriously challenging for carries.
John Conner -- 5'11", 240 lb senior: Conner has played in 42 career games, carrying 23 times for 89 yards (3.9 ypc). The sure-handed fullback has caught 20 passes for 147 yards (7.3 ypr) and three touchdowns. In 2008, Conner produced 15 carries for 47 yards (3.1 ypc), and snagged 11 passes for 89 yards (8.1 ypr).
Conner's is evidently not recovered from his injury, and did not play Saturday (Maurice Grinter filled-in at the fullback spot). Conner is an important part of the UK offense, both as a blocker, and goal-line ball carrier. He's also pretty handy catching passes out of the backfield. Kentucky needs him healthy.
A. J. Nance -- 5'11", 256 lb senior: Last season (and for his career), Nance has rushed three times for 18 yards (6.0 ypc).
Nance, on Saturday ran the ball once, for four yards. The Knoxville native supplies UK with depth at the fullback spot.
CoShik Williams -- 5'9", 180 lb redshirt freshman: The Hiram, Georgia product had a tremendous spring. A spring in which he showed himself to be a major contender for second on the depth chart at the running back position (remember, Locke was hurt). He affirmed the coach's feelings in the two major scrimmages this fall, where Williams ran for a combined 140 yards on 29 carries, and one touchdown. His only problem being -- Holding on to the football (not a good problem to have as a freshman). In high school, Williams rushed for over 2,600 yards in his junior and senior seasons (combined); this despite him missing four games his senior year. Williams was also a track star, competing in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, as well as the 4x100 and 4x400 relays. He reached the Georgia high school state track meet championships all four years of high school.
Saturday versus Miami, Williams rushed a team-high 10 times for 39 yards (3.9 ypc). He'll get some work this year, more if there are injuries, and he conquers his "droppsies."
Donald Russell -- 5'11", 205 lb true freshman: Russell was named one of the Top 50 running backs in the nation by Rivals.com. His senior year, the Florida native rushed for 893 yards and 12 touchdowns. As a junior he ran for 932 yards and nine touchdowns. He's been clocked at 10.7 in the 100 meters.
Versus Miami, Russell ran seven times for 31 yards (4.3 ypc). He's quick, that's for certain, but Russell and Williams have a log-jam of talent in front of them. Seeing playing time once the SEC slate begins will be difficult, but they do supply much needed depth to the running back position, especially important considering Locke's injury history.
A Plea for Coach Brooks
Those that have read A Sea of Blue on a regular basis for more than a few months, know that I hold Rich Brooks in very high esteem. I think the job he's done at UK is to commended, heck, if I were in charge I would rename the football field "Rich Brooks Field" (that would give him two football fields named after him).
BUT, I do wish that he would reconsider using Randall Cobb as a kick returner. I know Cobb is special with the ball in his hands, but I feel the risk involved far outweighs the benefits. Plus, there are several highly capable return men available-- Defensive back Winston Guy is ridiculously fast and did a fine job late last year returning kicks. Wide out Gene McCaskill is equally fast, and has some return experience. Another receiver, Eric Adeyemi is very fast and dangerous in the open field. Derrick Locke is a great return man, but his knee injury would keep me from allowing him to return kicks.
It honestly scares me to see Cobb settling-in under a kick. The thought of knees buckling, and ankles twisting haunt my optimistic nature. Papa, I won't preach any longer, if you'll only take this matter under advisement.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!