Using the word tradition and Kentucky football in the same sentence might seem an unfortunate choice of words to some, but over the last 15 years Wildcat football has produced a number of great receivers of the ball. In fact, statistically, the most dominant wide outs in UK football history have played over the last decade-and-a-half. A quick look at the record book tells the tale:
Every one of the top ten career reception leaders at UK have played since 1995. Included in the list of superlative talents are: Craig Yeast (1995-'98), UK's career leader with 208 receptions, for a UK career record 2,899 yards, and a UK career record 28 touchdowns; Derek Abney ('00-'03), who caught 197 passes for 2,339 yards and 18 touchdowns; Keenan Burton ('03-'07) snagged 189 passes for 2,376 yards and 25 touchdowns; Randall Cobb ('08-'10), who became one of the most popular football 'Cats of all time by catching 144 passes for 1,661 yards and 13 touchdowns; Dicky Lyons, Jr. ('04, '06-'08) was responsible for 141 receptions for 1,752 yards and 18 touchdowns; and Quentin McCord ('96, '98-'00) caught 112 passes for 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns. (Not included in UK's top ten career receiving records is one Aaron Boone, who had a great season in 2002 with 41 catches for 706 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Chris Matthews, who last season caught 61 passes for 925 yards and nine touchdowns).
Great names, great players all. This year, though, Kentucky will be searching. Searching for the next great wide receiver and a supporting cast capable of making a difference in the SEC. After the jump, the candidates.
Life after Cobb
One of the many question marks surrounding this year's gridiron 'Cats, is who will step up as the new No. 1, go-to guy in UK's woefully inexperienced receiving corps? (Lest we forget, Cobb and Matthews have taken their combined 145 catches, 1,942 yards, and 16 TD's to the NFL). In addition, which receivers will supply quarterback Morgan Newton with reliable hands, reliable route running, and the ability to gain yards after the catch, giving the UK quarterback multiple wide out options, a vital component in determining how successful the 2011 Kentucky football season will be.
Let's tackle the first question, first: Obviously, the leading candidate to replace Randall Cobb as the top receiving 'Cat is junior La'Rod King. King, who possesses the size (6'5") and the hands -- they are quite large -- to be a great receiver, last season caught 36 balls for 478 yards (13.3 yards per reception) and scored five touchdowns. In his two-year Wildcat career, the North Hardin alum has snagged 46 passes for 620 yards (13.5 ypr) and has found the end zone six times.
King, who doesn't have blazing speed, is certainly quick enough to gain separation (his gait is Secretariat-like), though, and his hands, while big, are also very soft, and he is as athletic as they come -- he has tremendous leaping ability, long arms, and is able to adjust to the ball while in flight. If Newton is able to throw a catchable ball King's way, the big fella won't disappoint.
With the Kentucky receiving corps including so many true freshmen, as well as inexperienced veterans, this summer King has taken it upon himself to become a leader, something he has not been a position to do, until now. King told the Herald-Leader's Jennifer Smith, "I've told the team we're only as good as our weakest receiver, and I don't want to be known as the No. 1 receiver, just as the go-to guy. Everyone's the No. 1 receiver in my eyes. No more, 'I'm still a young guy learning.' I'm not going to let anybody outwork me. If I take that attitude to the field, more people are going to follow me."
Will King flourish as a leader and the Wildcats main (receiving) man? I'm betting he will. He simply is too gifted to not succeed.
Life After King
Kentucky's next most experienced receiver is Gene McCaskill (6'0", 192lbs), who is coming off a medical redshirt year after injuring his knee late last summer. McCaskill, though, has shown signs of being a solid receiver: In his first two years at UK, two years in which the Big Blue quarterback play was, uh, questionable, McCaskill caught a combined 32 passes for 344 yards (10.8 ypr), but never found pay dirt. McCaskill is quick -- although not blessed with lightening speed -- and like King, he hasn't dropped many passes. The question surrounding McCaskill is; how will he come back from his knee injury? If he hasn't lost a step, and if he is able to psychologically deal with getting hit (reticence to take a hit is always a concern when a receiver endures a major injury), then I believe McCaskill will provide King much needed help corralling Newton's passes. If not, and if no one steps in to fill McCaskill's shoes, King will face double and triple coverages all year.
Matt Roark is a receiving 'Cat who could break out of the throes of mediocrity and supply UK with another solid pass catcher. A senior standing 6'5," Roark, though, is the definition of potential ... unfulfilled. While a great leaper (he's blocked five extra point tries, and one field goal attempt in three seasons), and seemingly athletic, Roark has had trouble holding onto the ball. In his first three years with UK, Roark has caught 18 passes for 235 yards (13.1 ypr), last year he caught 12 balls for 170 yards (14.2 ypr), but all of those numbers should be higher. He's been targeted, he's had his chances, but his desire to make the big play sometimes causes him to lose focus of the in-flight ball.
Hopefully, working with receiver's coach Tee Martin, who coached Roark his senior season at North Cobb High School in Georgia, will pay off for the 'Cats this year, because this young man has all the physical tools a player needs to succeed at this level.
Others who will be given a chance to earn a starting or backup spot in UK's receiver rotation are: Brian Adams, the uber-athlete (4.4 second forty-yard dash) last season -- in limited action -- caught three passes for 12 yards (4.0 ypr). The 6'4," 225lb sophomore showed great promise in 2010, both on the game field and in practice, but he must overcome "the dropsies" or his talent and unsurpassed athleticism will never be fully appreciated by the masses; E.J. Fields, who became a standout special team's member last year after missing '09 with a foot injury, has the blazing speed a coach looks for in a deep threat (4.4 second forty-yard dash), but is still learning the receiver spot after a position change; Aaron Boyd, the junior out of Henry Clay, played in four games last year, making zero catches. Boyd came to UK as one of the nation's elite receiver prospects (he turned down Oregon for the 'Cats), but for whatever reason[s], he has not come within a mile of being a player the coaches are willing to trust on the field. Will the young man put it together? Your guess is as good as mine.
Life After High School
The group of freshmen wide outs the 'Cats welcome in this year are as impressive as any UK freshman receiving class I can remember, and while I hesitate to espouse that one of this group will have a year to remember, with the 'Cats' lack of experience, even among the returning players, all four of these frosh are capable of earning playing time (or, they could end up redshirting):
Leading off the impressive list of Wildcat freshmen receivers is 6'4," 200lb Rashad Cunningham. Possessing explosive speed (4.4 second 40-yard dash), Cunningham said no to Arkansas and Mississippi State to attend UK. Physically, Cunningham is ready to play in the SEC, he possesses all the tools, but learning the nuances of playing wide receiver at the SEC level is always a challenge for freshmen; Daryl Collins, a 6'0" 190lb defensive coordinator's nightmare, comes to Lexington ranked the No. 84 receiving prospect in the nation by Rivals.com. Collins spurned home state schools Alabama and Auburn (as well as Tennessee, Florida State, USC, Texas A&M, Miami (FL), Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and yes, Louisville) to join the Wildcats, and bring along with him his 4.5 speed, and incredible ability to make tacklers miss. Also, he catches the ball; next is Nile Daniel, who is ranked higher nationally than Collins (Daniel checks in as the No. 73 receiving prospect), and is the first of two exciting receiver prospects out of Georgia. The 6'0", 185lb Collins turned down offers from Maryland and South Florida to come to UK, and with his play and attitude this summer, he's moved himself up the ladder, becoming a player who will be given serious playing time consideration; also out of of the Peach State is 5'10," 170lb Demarco Robinson. Robinson, who broke Da'Rick Rogers' (Tennessee Vol) state single season reception record (Robinson caught 73 passes for 1,655 yards and 27 touchdowns), like his two freshmen counterparts, arrives on campus with tremendous receiving credentials. In fact, all four players, Collins, Daniel, Cunningham and Robinson, were full-time receivers in high school, something the 'Cats haven't had the luxury of having in the past few years (most of UK's receivers have been quarterbacks in high school), so these guys catch the ball. They don't have to be taught the skill, they already have it.
Never overestimate how much of an impact a freshman football player in the SEC will have. Particularly, freshmen receivers (learning the playbook, blocking schemes, and properly running routes are all concerns). But if there ever were a year a freshman could come in and play meaningful snaps, this is it. After all, after La'Rod King, it's all a mystery.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!