Over the next month and a half Kentucky football fans will hear a lot about Morgan Newton's development, Danny Trevathan's role as resident superstar as well as a stellar returning offensive line led by pre-season All SEC guard Larry Warford and steady senior Stuart Hines. Big things are also expected of La'Rod King, who is basically the only skill position player with a serviceable resume returning. However, the keys to the Cat's season may lay in the hands of some less heralded players whose names you won't hear as much in the coming weeks.
The truth is, almost every season UK has someone emerge from the shadows to become a real difference maker. The best example was 2009, when LB Sam Maxwell went from career backup to being the SEC's co-leader in interceptions. Maxwell helped anchor a defense that led the Cats to an ecstatic 7-5 regular season. Last year, it was Warford, who went from second stringer as a freshman to all SEC. (Mike Hartline, in my estimation, underwent a similar transformation.) In 2007, Stevie Johnson caught more touchdowns (13) than he had receptions (12) the year before. Of course, a couple of those TDs were pretty darned important, being game winners against Louisville and LSU.
Stick with me after the jump, as I take a look at a handful of Cats who might transform themselves into difference makers in 2011.1. Ronnie Sneed. Last year Snead was called upon to start at middle linebacker after two seasons playing almost exclusively on special teams. Results were a mixed bag. Ronnie was third on the team in stops with 62 and lead the team with five quarterback hurries. Still, 62 tackles isn't eye popping considering Snead was a near every down player and the Cats' D-Line didn't exactly make a ton of stops in front of him. UK was manhandled along the front 7 at times last year, and certainly missed Micah Johnson in the middle. Snead has reportedly put on 10-12 pounds in the off season. If he could elevate himself to a 90-100 tackle player in his second season as a starter, UK would benefit greatly.
2. Mister Cobble. The enigmatic Louisville Central High product is due some luck. After burning his redshirt in 2009, Cobble failed to gain eligibility in 2010, sitting out the entire regular season. WIth nothing to lose, UK cut him loose in the BBVA Compass bowl (he regained eligibility in the fall semester), where he logged one tackle and was not quite in playing shape. Then Cobble underwent surgery in April to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. He is expected to be ready for fall camp. Cobble was considered UK's best defensive lineman in the spring of 2009, and has NFL size (6'1" 338). The Cats desperately need a run stopper of the first order. If Cobble can live up to his immense promise, it would go a long way to shore up the defense.
3. Jordan Aumiller. Aumiller is one of four Cats still vieing for playing time at Tight End, along with Tyler Robinson, Nick Melillo and Anthony Kendrick. Often compared to fellow Boyle County product and fantasy football wonderkind Jacob Tamme, Aumiller actually caught more balls as a freshman (18) than Tamme did for the Cats in 2004 (16). In truth, it is difficult to tell who will emerge from this morass (my best guess is that Melillo will fall by the wayside and Kendrick will be used primarily as a blocker) but what is important is that the Cats get more production out of the position in 2011.
4. Martavius Neloms. Neloms had what I consider an outstanding year in 2010, coming from nowhere to finish fourth on the team in tackles from the cornerback position. A hitter and a playmaker, Neloms was moved to safety in spring practice after being listed as a starting corner going in. Presumably he will be in a position to make more plays there. The Cats have a lot of depth in the secondary. In Neloms I believe they have one guy with untapped All-SEC potential.
5. Raymond Sanders. Sanders was serviceable as a backup running back in the SEC last year, including a monster game against Georgia. This year he gets the reins, though UK will probably need a number of running back to get through the season. With Kentucky's offensive line, Sanders is going to be given a chance to succeed. A smaller guy (5'8" 185) who reminds some of former Cat Rafael Little, whether Sanders can be successful will hinge on his ability to make guys miss and (not coincidentally) to remain healthy and on the field. Assuming he can do so, a 150-175 carry, 600-700 yard season is realistic (and would be quite helpful).