Fresh off of one of the most welcome bye weeks in program history, the 2-4 Kentucky Wildcats prepared to take the field this week against the 5-1 Jacksonville St. Gamecocks. If this game doesn't have you scared to death, then you haven't been paying attention. Prior to the season, I predicted UK would beat Jacksonville St. 63-7. With our Cats having scored only 75 points in their first six games combined, that now seems like a tall order. Here are some fresh thoughts for what will hopefully be a fresh start.
1. Nothing to gain? Hardly. Usually we go into these games against 1-AA teams with very little to gain. It is supposed to represent an easy victory and a chance to get different players into the game. On the off chance that you lose, it is a complete disaster. Winning, even impressively, does little good. Saturday, however, will find the Cats desperate for a win and for a chance to get some rhythm offensively. Since we had to bite, scratch and claw to beat Central Michigan and Western Kentucky, the O has yet to fire on all cylinders for more than one series at a time. Plus, at this point I'd say we aren't going to throw any wins back. There is a real chance Kentucky loses this game. If anyone in Commonwealth fails to see that Saturday, they haven't been paying attention. There will be a sense of urgency there and the Cats will be very happy, if in fact they win.
2. Joker is safe, for now. Mitch Barnhart (who might be the most unfairly criticized person in the history of UK athletics) has now gone on record with Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal and others with the notion that Joker Phillips will be his coach in 2012. Though a vote of confidence isn't always a good thing, this one is probably pretty solid. First, it confirms conventional wisdom that Barnhart doesn't have a quick trigger. Absent some BCG shenanigans, that isn't his MO. Second, the move would go against the fiscal grain. Joker is owed $1.7 million per year through December 31, 2014. His contract would call for 100% of his salary to be paid through the year after the calender year in which he was fired and 50% thereafter. In other words, if Joker were let got at the end of this regular season, Kentucky would owe him $3.4 million in buyout money over the next three years. That in addition to what we pay another coach. Even if you accept the notion that Joker will never be successful here (which I am not prepared to do), it makes no financial sense to fire him before a year where we will struggle regardless. This isn't basketball. No matter who is at the helm, there'll be no quick fix.
3. Winston Guy deserves better. One of the worst aspects of this lost season is what it does to the narrative of Winston Guy, easily the most enigmatic player of the Brooks/Joker Kentucky era. Guy was heralded as a great recruit coming out of Lexington Catholic, and was maddeningly inconsistent in his first three years as a Cat. For the last two years at safety, Guy would make big hits apenty, then miss seemingly easy tackles and lose receivers in coverage. The book had always been that Guy had a million dollar body and a ten cent head. This year he has disavowed the entire world of that notion. Danny Trevathan is deservedly the Cats' bell cow on defense, but Guy has been every bit his equal in 2011. Credit Rick Minter for Guy's slight position change to a hybrid LB/SS, which has allowed him to make more plays. And credit Guy for what appears to be a great deal of person growth. The tackles and interceptions have increased, the no arm "sticks" that result in broken tackles and the un-self aware tweets have decreased. I'm proud of this kid. Had UK pulled out the game against Louisville and showed up in the last three SEC games, I think people would be talking about Guy's year a lot more. UK isn't going to have 2 defensive All Americans in such a down year. It's a shame, because that is the kind of year Guy is having. No matter how that goes I hope Guy has played his way into the NFL.
4. Gimmick schimmick. I have said in this space that I think the Cats should go with more misdirection and try to get away from a straight ahead running game. Others suggest that we scrap a conventional offense altogether and go with something more unconventional. The notion is that when you don't have the horses to line up head to head with your opponents, you can gain an advantage by doing something they don't practice against every week. In theory this sounds great. In reality, though, we've tried this before and it doesn't work. In fact, the most vilified offenses we've had around here are when we tried to use tricks. "Tim Couch running the option" is everyone's buzz phrase for the futility of Bill Curry era. Remember the constant bubble screens and lining up Jared Lorenzen at WR of the early Brooks years? How well did that work out. Mummeball worked here for a time, and it could work again. But lost in the nostalgia over Mumme is the fact that Couch was the perfect QB for that system. He threw short passes with pinpoint accuracy, allowing his receivers to catch the ball in stride and make big plays. Without guys like him and Craig Yeast, no one remembers that offense with any fondness. No matter what offense a team runs, it has to execute well to be successful. We could be running a 25th Century Bump and Slide Double Cannon that no one has ever seen before, and I still don't think this year's offense would be having much success.
5. If I'm Joker, I'd consider doing a couple of things differently. Rather than re-hauling the offense, I'd suggest a couple of tweaks. I'd consider calling for more three and five step drops (as opposed to 7) in an effort to avoid sacks and get the ball out quicker. On the occasions where we want to throw deep, I'd like to see us intentionally move the pocket to give Newton more options to tuck it up. Finally, I'd run more counter plays, which seem to work when we call them. On special teams, most things are going well, one area trouble spot is the return game. I hope we used the off week to search for another option at punt returner. Randall Burden still does not look comfortable. As for defense, my only suggestion is to move Martavius Neloms back to corner and get Mychal Bailey back on the field. Neloms has struggled at times after looking very good as a true freshman last year, and Anthony Mosely is having a hard time with SEC receivers at corner.