Football is so often used as metaphor for life in general, all forms of epic struggle in particular and even more singularly, war. What makes football so special, though, is that no analogy to something bigger is really necessary. Because in and of itself, it is more than a game.Between the physical and mental sacrifices of its participants, the amount of coaching up and preparation involved, the spacing out of the games and the importance of one loss in most leagues, it is its own epic struggle.
As with any struggle, the up side is obvious. Strife gives men (and women, but in this case only men) the opportunity to take stock of themselves. Every day, people rise to challenges, fail or, more often than most of us care to admit, simply shy away. The magical allure of professional and big time college sports, of course, is that it allows us to see others' personal struggles play out in real time. The results are often glorious, and occasionally gut wrenching.
The coming year for the football Cats (even if wildly successful) will represent a collective struggle for sure, but also an individual one. Careers of men young and not so young hang in the balance. Love it or merely tolerate it, University of Kentucky football always makes for great theatre. In 2011, things will be no different. The Wildcats are at a crossroads, as are many of the individuals who'll be counted on to rise to the challenge.
Morgan Newton. A terrific kid and terrific athlete who has skeptics wondering if he will ever be a terrific, or even adequate, SEC quarterback. Newton will enter fall camp as the unquestioned starter and default leader of a UK offense that returns a stellar line but virtually no proven playmakers. For the Cats to get over the hump on 2011, an "improved" or "solid" Newton isn't going to be enough. He is going to have to be very good. If Newton cannot be successful at this level, UK is going to be scrambling for the better part of the next two years.
Danny Trevathan. A fascinating young man whose gold tooth and dreads belie an incredibly thoughtful and introspective nature. Danny has worked his body into greek statue status and willed himself to become perhaps the SEC's best linebacker. But Trevathan also realizes this might not be enough. To get all due credit and fully realize his senior season, Travathan will have to lead others to succeed at a level closer to himself. Otherwise, he is just "that good linebacker at Kentucky", not the household name in the south he deserves to be.
Winston Guy Jr, the uber-talented tackle machine who often appears lost in pass coverage. What Travathan brings in self awareness, Guy balances out in blind cocksure bravado. A slight position change to a linebacker-safety hybrid in Rick Minter's new defense may bring out the best in Guy's talents. Having a second All-SEC caliber player would be key for the Cats. Being in a position to make more plays and fewer gaffes might yield Guy the respect be believes he deserves and an NFL contract. As Jeff Probst might say, "It's worth playing for." If he wants to play on Sundays, Guy cannot afford a lackluster senior year.
Steve Brown, who remains in the program after a de facto demotion from defensive coordinator to the "co-defensive coordinator who doesn't dictate the scheme or call the plays". Brown is a former 3rd round draft choice and All-Rookie performer who spent 8 years in the NFL. He is still fit and cuts an imposing figure. He deserves respect and must be able to continue to command it. Brown can attain a measure of redemption with his defensive backs this year. For UK to be successful, this deep and experienced unit (ten different players have seen important snaps) must be the backbone of the defense. Third down stops and big picks have to be the order of the day.
As always, however, heaviest is the head that wears the crown. Joker Phillips has his dream job, a million dollar contract and the title of Head Football Coach. He is also under tremendous pressure to produce and produce right now with a roster that has seen and will see better days. In 2010, despite good skill position talent and a surprising near All-SEC level performance from its quarterback, Kentucky took a step back. The Cats struggled at the beginning of nearly every game and looked out of sync defensively nearly all year. Had UK not pulled out the amazing come-from-behind home win over USC in final minutes and finished (5-7, 1-7) with no bowl, there would be no margin for error left. Joker is acutely and reflexively aware of this, as evidenced by sometimes greeting well wishers with the mantra "We're going to do better next year."
Without question, Philips did a lot of good in his first year as coach. He established himself as the boss by shaking up the staff, including one move that had been a long time coming. With a series of suspensions and dismissals he let the players know he wouldn't put up with crap. This off season he recognized the need to change not only personnel but philosophy on the defensive side of the ball. Most importantly, he found a way to get to a fifth straight bowl and keep the train rolling. That will all be for naught without six or seven wins in 2011.
Unlike his predecessor and mentor Rich Brooks, Phillips cannot weather the storm of a couple of losing seasons. Expectations (that he helped create as an offensive coach and recruiter) are simply too high. Yet Joker will start the season with offensive skills position and defensive linemen playing key roles who would have likely not seen the field at any point in the last five years at Kentucky. A winning record will require a very good coaching job, much like the virtual masterpiece Brooks coaxed out in 2009. The Cats will need to play 60 minutes of football each week, make up for weaknesses by winning turnover margin battles, and find two or three surprise contributors.
Phillips knows this, and if it keeps him up nights, well, it probably should. It's his time. While all of Big Blue Nation may be watching with baited breath, men like Newton, Trevathan, Guy, Brown and Phillips will be living it. And that is what makes sports so awesome.
Follow Alex Scutchfield on Twitter @UK_Football_Fan