Sophomore quarterback Max Smith must perform well if the 'Cats hope to have a winning season.
It should come as no surprise that the Herald-Leader reports that 2012 Kentucky Wildcat football season ticket sales are down. With the confluence of a struggling economy, a 5-7 record in 2011, and low fan expectations for the upcoming season, football season ticket sales are feeling the brunt force trauma brought on by waning interest from UK football fans.
So there is no better time than the present for Mr. Optimistic to once again make an appearance, and give his reasons why the 2012 Wildcat football season will be better, possibly much better, than the fans and prognosticators predict it will be.
Follow me after the jump for Mr. Optimistic's breakdown of why the 'Cats will (pleasantly) surprise.
Significantly improved quarterback play
After inheriting the starting quarterback position last year because of a mid-season shoulder injury to Morgan Newton, Maxwell Smith, true freshman signal caller, played well enough to give Kentucky football fans a reason to believe the 'Cats could win more than they lose in 2012.
In Smith's four starts, versus Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Georgia, he completed 57.5 percent of his passes (77-134) for 769 yards (192.3 yards per game), four touchdowns and two picks. Not overwhelming numbers, but for a freshman tossed into the SEC fray unexpectedly, certainly acceptable numbers, and numbers which can be reasonably expected to improve during Smith's sophomore campaign.
Surprisingly to many, Smith put up those numbers after starting his college career (he sparingly in three of UK's first six games) completing only seven of 20 passes and tossing back-to-back picks in UK's blowout loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks. Smith, particularly in the SC game, looked anything but ready-for-prime-time.
When re-appearing as the starter only a few games later, though, Smith displayed a California coolness that can't be taught; a calm-under-pressure some athletes are simply born with. It seems in his case, it took Smith a few big time SEC reps to get his feet under him, and harken his confidence to the forefront. But whatever the cause for his considerable improvement, as the season progressed Smith became a competent Southeastern Conference quarterback, especially considering he was experiencing the bright lights of the big leagues for the first time.
Taking into account that Smith tosses a catchable ball, and displayed good accuracy on moderately deep to long throws, the late year improvement of the receivers' ability to make the catch is something that should bleed over into the 2012 season. With sophomore Demarco Robinson, who performed like a breakaway SEC receiver in the spring, senior leader La'Rod King, who led the 2012 'Cats with 40 catches, seven touchdowns, and a 14.9 yards per catch average, the re-appearance of highly touted receiver Daryl Collins, who redshirted last year after a fall camp knee injury, along with tight end targets Tyler Robinson (6-foot-3, 258 pounds) and Jordan Aumiller (6-foot-4, 240 pounds), Smith should have ample targets to toss the pigskin to, stretching the field and giving UK's stable of running backs room to romp.
Which segues nicely into the next reason Mr. Optimistic is so bewilderingly optimistic ...
Talented running backs galore and earth movers to open up space
Although the health and therefore the availability of Josh Clemons, last season's bell cow back prior to his season-ending knee injury (in six games; 65 carries, 279 yards and two TDs), is still reportedly up in the air, Kentucky has a stable of backs ready to improve on the 'Cats eleventh place SEC finish in rushing yards last season. I'm going forward as only Mr. Optimistic can do, thinking the best will happen, and Clemons will be healthy once the hittin' commences.
Blessed with both speed and strength, Clemons (5-foot-10, 204 pounds), who rushed for 279 yards, two touchdowns and a 4.3 yards per carry average in six games last year, and junior running back Jonathan George (5-foot-10, 223 pounds), offer Joker Phillips a power game change-of-pace from the scat back look given UK by the more slight CoShik Williams (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) and Raymond Sanders (5-foot-8, 190 pounds).
If UK can keep its opponents off balance with both between-the-tackles backs and tailbacks capable of getting to the edges, the running game should be considerably better than last year. With the return of seniors, center Matt Smith (6-foot-4, 296 pounds), and All-SEC guard Larry Warford (6-foot-3, 343 pounds), UK's offensive line possesses two players talented enough to anchor an SEC-worthy o-line. And don't sleep on sophomore tackle Darrian Miller (6-foot-5, 293 pounds), who played to accolades last year, and the building-with-arms, guard Teven Eatmon-Nared (6-foot-7, 342 pounds), as both players showed great promise in 2011, especially Miller, who many think is an All-SEC-type of performer.
The paltry 1,490 yards of rushing the Wildcats produced last season (124.2 yards per game) can at least partly be blamed on a struggling passing game, especially through the first six games, and an offensive line slow to gel due to preseason and early-season injuries. But when given space all of the UK backs performed well enough to give credence to those who feel Kentucky's running game will be its strength, and possibly one of the top five or six running attacks in the conference.
Breakthrough players at key defensive spots
With Kentucky losing all three linebacker starters from last year -- including the SEC's two-time tackle leader, Danny Trevathan (143 tackles in 2011), and hybrid spy Winston Guy, who was second on the team in tackles last year with 120, in addition to senior-to-be Ridge Wilson, who allegedly thought it wise to distribute Xanax from the backseat of his car on Oak Street in Louisville -- UK backer coach Chuck Smith is counting on sophomore Alvin Dupree (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), and junior Avery Williamson (6-foot-1, 254 pounds) to follow in the footsteps of recent outstanding Wildcat linebackers Wesley Woodyard, Sam Maxwell, and Trevathan.
Last season both players contributed, with Dupree earning three late-season starts (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Tennessee), as he made the most of his opportunity by making 14 of his 21 tackles in those three contests. Williamson did not start any games, but was impressively fifth on the team with 49 tackles.
Both Dupree and Williamson have the linebacker characteristics most associated with success: athleticism, speed, and laser pursuit of the ball. And with a year's experience in defensive coordinator Rick Minter's stunting, chance-taking defensive schemes, both players should be much more comfortable with what they are being asked to accomplish on the field.
Finally, former 4-star recruit, now sophomore safety Glenn Faulkner (6-foot-2, 185 pounds), who arrived late to campus last year, putting him behind his Wildcat competition, will be given the opportunity to take playing time away from safeties Mikie Benton (28 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2011) and Ashely Lowery (21 tackles).
Faulkner has not only tremendous speed, but is one of those players who almost innately finds the ball, making him not only fast, but instinctive; a dangerous combination for receivers and quarterbacks.
Kentucky has not had a consistent defensive backfield play-maker since Trevard Lindley and David Jones graduated three years ago. This year, though, Faulkner fills the void.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!