Football is a team game, and perhaps no sport other than soccer is less dependent upon the skills of any one player. Without an offensive line, those running backs just don't fare well. Great quarterbacks become mediocre when they can't keep opposing linemen from hurrying their throws. Scoring a ton of points won't help much if your defense is porous or non-existent. Tackling machines often pile up huge numbers while the team founders. It goes on and on.
However, every football team has a couple of guys that can make the difference between a good season and a great one, or a lousy season and a passable one. Every team has them, and we'll be looking at two players, one from each side of the ball.
I'll go against the grain right here and start with the defense. Kentucky's most glaring area of concern this year is the defensive secondary, where the starters are mostly upperclassmen who have been around the program for a while, although the depth is painfully young. The effectiveness of the secondary is largely going to be dependent upon how well Martavius Neloms handles the cornerback spot.
Neloms has been putting in good work for Kentucky for the last two years after coming to the Bluegrass as an unheralded 2-star cornerback out of Memphis. Neloms was one of those sleeper recruits that every position coach for Kentucky hopes to pick up, somebody overlooked by the bigger, badder SEC football programs.
Neloms has never been a great interceptor of the ball in his two years of playing at Kentucky, but he has been a solid tackler, ranking 3rd on the defense in tackling last year . Although he was well behind all-SEC players Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy Jr., they played in positions where run support was the biggest part of their job description. Neloms was originally slated to go to safety this year because of his great tackling ability.
Unfortunately, Marcus Caffey, who was supposed to replace Neloms at the corner, didn't cut the academic mustard and has to spend this season working on grades. So Neloms was moved back to his old spot at cornerback. Neloms is a guy who has a nose for the football and loves to knock people down, so it will be very important for him to balance his love of run support with excellent coverage on the seemingly endless supply of outstanding SEC receivers. How well he is able to do that, as well as his durability, will play a critical factor in the performance of Kentucky's secondary this year. With depth being limited mostly to freshmen, Neloms is the defensive player Kentucky can least afford to lose.
Offensively, the player that I think is going to be the lynchpin is in the trenches -- tackle Darrian Miller. Yeah, the quarterbacks get all the glory, and the skill positions all the press, but Miller is the left tackle for Kentucky -- the "blind side" tackle, and he's only a sophomore, which makes him one of the youngest left tackles in the country on a BCS squad.
Anyone who has seen the movie, The Blind Side, understands just how critical the left tackle position is. Run blocking is one thing, and Kentucky has guys big enough and strong enough to do that. But pass protection is where the rubber meets the road, as Maxwell Smith can surely tell you. On the eighth play of his second series against the LSU Tigers last year Tyrann Mathieu (aka the "Honey Badger") got loose on Smith's blind side, and this was the result.
That breakdown wasn't on the offensive tackle, but on running back Josh Clemons, who failed to pick up the blitz by Mathieu, instead picking up a blitzing linebacker, Ryan Baker, on the inside. To be honest, Smith should have audibled that play into a hot route, but he could at least see Baker coming. He could not see Mathieu (hence, "blind side"), and the the result was an LSU defensive touchdown.
Miller's job this year will be to protect Smith's blind side from all enemies as well as open up holes for UK's deep, strong running back corps to run through, and given the state of SEC defenses and Miller's youth, that will be a tough job. How well he does that job will largely determine how much time Smith has to throw the football, and the more time he has, the better the chance of a successful play.
I know these two picks are unconventional, but I believe that if this Kentucky team is to win, it is going to take more than dangerous receivers, head-knocking runners and gaudy tackle stats. The unheralded guys are going to have to play outstanding football in order to give Kentucky a chance at a winning season.