This is the first in a series of posts examining the 2010 Kentucky football season. In the weeks coming we'll take an in-depth, position-by-position look at the 'Cats and their prospects for the upcoming season.
New Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips to Cat Scratches:
"Operation Win is definitely a process, a growing process. We have to get our kids thinking about three things we want them to do -- win in the classroom, win in the community, and win on the field. We have to eat, sleep, and breathe Operation Win. We have to ingrain it in our kids' minds."
With "Operation Win" now in full swing, Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips has hit the ground galloping toward taking the next step in UK's pigskin metamorphosis: Establishing the UK football program as not only a credible threat to every team on its schedule, but also gaining (winning) consistency within the SEC East Division; arguably the toughest division in college football. And toward that end; since taking over the head chair from Rich Brooks in January, Phillips has done his best John Calipari impersonation by criss-crossing the Commonwealth promoting the program he has loved for nearly his entire life. In addition, Phillips has so far lived up to his reputation as a master recruiter by putting together what could be the best class (2011) in Kentucky football history.
But, Phillips must continue on his current break-neck pace, and augment his off-the-field work ethic with on-the-field results if Kentucky football is to fulfill the promise the last four seasons have given rise to; Evolving from being consistently competitive to consistently winning eight, nine, or ten games per season.
As challenging as taking that giant step may seem at first blush, the fact is; Kentucky football, with many thanks to coach Brooks, has never been more prepared than now to execute the unfathomable.
Adding to his great fortune, Phillips finds himself in a position unique to Kentucky football coaches: He's taking over a winning program. After posting a 30-22 record over the last four seasons, UK has not only won more games in that time span than since the '48-'51 seasons, but the all-important depth chart is now stocked with players capable of performing up to SEC standards. Where before an injury to one or two starters spelled doom for Kentucky, there are now backups talented enough to fill in admirably when the starter goes down. And in a 13-game season filled with 320-pound lineman pounding anything in blue that moves, the importance of the No. 2's and No. 3's at each position has never been more integral to success.
In his first season as "The Man," Phillips though, finds himself facing more than a few challenges. The most glaring being which player will gain separation from his teammates in the race for the starting quarterback position. With senior Mike Hartline (802 passing yards in '09; 6 TD's), sophomore Morgan Newton (706 yards passing; 6 TD's), and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski neck-and-neck, heading toward a photo-finish in a fight to take starting snaps under center, Phillips' starting nod resolution might be the most crucial decision he makes this year.
I must add this one caveat concerning the quarterback challenge: I'm very impressed with Mossakowski's ability to make-up ground. After missing last season due to a shoulder injury suffered his senior year in high school, Mossakowski is now considered to be even in the race with Morgan Newton, who started eight games last year, and only slightly behind senior Mike Hartline. Impressive indeed, and perhaps indicative of things to come.
Also causing concern among the Big Blue football faithful is the fact that UK will be starting four new offensive linemen. The graduation of left tackle Zipp Duncan, right tackle Justin Jefferies, center Jorge Gonzalez, and left guard Christian Johnson leaves the 'Cats without the four players most responsible for opening holes for running backs Derrick Locke, (the graduated) Alfonso Smith, and Moncell Allen, along with protecting the health of whomever is taking snaps under center.
The 2,486 yards (4.5 yards per carry as a team) UK gained on the ground last year can best be described as season-saving, especially considering the 'Cats were at best inconsistent through the air. In 2010, the quarterback protection and running game opus lies with junior Jake Lanefski, junior Billy Joe Murphy, sophomore Larry Warford, junior All-SEC player Stuart Hines, junior Chandler Burden (who moved from defensive end), and senior Brad Durham. All have either started or played intermittent starter snaps throughout their careers, but none have been looked at to consistently provide the 'Cats with every-down play.
Similarly, UK's defensive line and linebacker positions also suffers from the loss of three outstanding All-SEC players in defensive tackle Corey Peters, middle linebacker Micah Johnson, and strongside linebacker Sam Maxwell. While all three will be greatly missed, their heir apparent [s] are solid players, with the potential to be meaningful contributors. Shane McCord is the most likely candidate to replace Peters on the D-Line, and Jacob Dufrene, Ridge Wilson, Ronnie Sneed, and Qua Huzzie (a sure candidate to replace Micah Johnson) should mount strong campaigns to earn starting snaps at the linebacker spot. The return of budding star linebacker Danny Trevathan as the strongside 'backer should ensure the 'Cats are strong in ball and quarterback pursuit.
The Kentucky secondary, while not as devastated by departures as the offensive line, will also see some fresh faces among those attempting to thwart the opponent's passing game. Losing All-SEC performer Trevard Lindley and strong safety Calvin Harrison will open the door for junior cornerback Randall Burden, junior free safety Taiedo Smith, and sophomore cornerback Martavious Neloms. All three returnees, like their linemen teammates, have played meaningful snaps for UK, but the 2010 season should see them become major components in UK's passing game coverage.
Rounding-out the losses from the 2009 season are tight ends Maurice Grinter and T.C. Drake. While neither player put up outstanding numbers in the passing game, Grinter and Drake both provided the offense with sure hands, and solid blocking. Replacing the two experienced players will be junior Nick Melillo (44 yards receiving) along with freshman phenom, and 4-star recruit Alex Smith. Phillips likes to utilize the tight end position to catch passes, so this season look for one or both of the new bloods to make an impact in the down-field passing game.
Makin' Joker Smile
Allowing Phillips to sleep at night is the knowledge that All-SEC performer, junior Randall Cobb (1,762 all-purpose yard; 15 TD's), will once again be catching passes, running the ball, passing the ball, and returning kicks for the 'Cats. Cobb, one of the most versatile athletes to ever don the blue and white, is roundly considered the most dangerous man on the field wearing "Kentucky" across his chest, and is as indispensable as any one player can be. I've even received unconfirmed reports that Cobb was seen fueling the UK team plane last year ... he simply does it all.
The challenge for Phillips this year, though, is to not wear down his all-world as happened last season. The need for Cobb's athleticism and elusiveness must be balanced by the knowledge that his relatively slight frame (5-11, 190 lbs) is vulnerable to punishment every time he touches the ball. Phillips must find a way to effectively use one of the most dangerous players in the SEC, or risk not having Cobb at his best for the entire season. Helping out in that endeavor will be senior fellow wide receiver Chris Matthews (354 receiving yards; 3 TD's) who's coming off an inconsistent, yet promising rookie season. Sophomore La'Rod King (142 yards receiving; 1 TD), who last year displayed the ability to snag anything within arms reach, and gain yards after the catch will also be a major factor at the wide out spot. Junior Gene McCaskill (163 yards receiving), a probable starter, and sophomore E. J. Fields should also have ample opportunity to show off their touchdown dance stylings.
As cool as the other side of the pillow for Phillips is the return of two UK running backs, senior Derrick Locke (1,858 all-purpose yards; 9 TD's), and star-in-waiting, sophomore Donald Russell (137 yards rushing; 1 TD). Locke has of course been a force out of the backfield for three years. His speed, power, and pass catching ability make him an integral cog in the Big Blue offense. Locke will, though, be pushed for playing time and carries by the ultra-quick Russell.
Entering the ball-carrying picture for the first time in 2010 will be stud, 3-star tailback Brandon Gainer. Gainer, while extremely talented, will be hard-pressed to pressure Locke and Russell for serious playing time, but injuries are always a concern in college football, leaving the door ajar for a possible Gainer break-out. And whether UK will field a consistent passing game remains (eternally?) the "million-dollar" question, which could result in the running backs being pressed into carrying the offensive load while the passing game plays catch-up. That could mean a sprinkling of carries for Gainer, and possibly sophomore CoShik Williams.
Adding to the optimistic outlook Phillips is taking into his initial season at the UK helm is the loss of fullback John Conner, simply one of the toughest, most reliable performers to ever play at Kentucky, being at least partially mitigated by the return of Moncell Allen (5-7, 225 lbs), who moves from running back to fullback this season. I look for Allen, a big, bruising back with speed and tackle "escape-ability" to provide Phillips and the 'Cats with the ability to execute touchdown-making blocks, and carry the ball for a high per carry average. Allen (251 total yards; 2 TD's) has more speed than Conner ... which could be dangerous for UK's opponents in the 2010 season. Junior Greg Meisner will backup Allen at the fullback position.
Bad news for UK opponents in 2010 is the fact that the defensive end position is perhaps the brightest spot on the defensive side of the ball for the 'Cats. With returning sack leader (6), senior DeQuin Evans (a Phil Steele 4th Team All-SEC player), and rising star, sophomore Taylor Wyndham (who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery), along with backups Collins Ukwu and redshirt freshman Tristian Johnson, Phillips 'Cats should be able to adequately pressure the quarterback, and force running backs inside, out of the 4-3 defense.
No, I didn't forget: The kicking game. The ever-inconsistent (although, he did make some big kicks) Lones Seiber era, has finally given way to ... well, don't really know yet, but my money is on junior Ryan Tydlacka. He has experience, a strong leg, and I'm betting more success than Rich Brooks was accustomed to. Tydlacka will also resume his punting duties in 2010.
The Heart of the Matter
Clearly, Joker Phillips has inherited an impressive group of returning players, along with some challenges that should be met by an experienced gaggle of backups, and part-time starter now looked at to start on a regular basis. To be successful, though, Phillips must make the right decision concerning his starting quarterback spot, which would be made easier by one player gaining a measure of separation from the others. While many prognosticators point to UK's lost personnel as a reason for concern, my thinking is that the players now being relied on to start are, for the most part, proven commodities. Which leaves the quarterback battle as the most important element of fall camp.
As noted, in the coming weeks we will breakdown each position in an in-depth expose' of the prospects for Kentucky and Joker Phillips enjoying a successful 2010 football season.
In 2009 Kentucky football fans set a UK record for attendance ... for the third year in a row. The 69,594 average attendance at Commonwealth Stadium is the highest average attendance figure in UK history.
Kudos fans, kudos.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!