With the myriad of events taking place the last few weeks, spring football practice has been given only passing interest by many, including myself. With the new look Blue-White game Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, I thought it time to provide a preview of the game, and an overview of the prospects for a successful '09 season.
Papa Brooks decided to hold a "draft" this year to determine the rosters for this years Blue-White tilt. Offensive Coordinator Joker Phillips will coach the Blue team, with Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown coaching the White. This game configuration is very different than the previous Brooks spring games which were basically offense verus defense. I like the idea. With many starting nods yet to be decided this set-up allows for a "real game" feel to the contest.
I like the White team in this game (please place no wager based on my "feeling"). The quarterback position will be manned by Curtis Pulley and Will Fidler. The running backs of note for the Whites are Derrick Locke and Moncell "Rolling Bowling Ball" Allen. Receivers Dicky Lyons and E.J. Adams, along with tight end T. C. Drake round out the offensive skill position players with experience or projected experience, who will be suiting up for the White team. This group should score some points, which at times have been hard to come by this spring.
The Whites also get the edge in the defensive secondary department. Paul Warford and Trevard "Pick Six" Lindley will be giving Blue's quarterback Mike Hartline headaches all day long. Lindley and Warford have an opportunity to do something special in '09. Both possess killer skills, and if they remain healthy, along with Marcus McClinton, they will wreak havoc on SEC QBs and receivers this upcoming season.
The Blue team will line up the aforementioned Mike Hartline at QB, with Kyrus Lanxter being the lone receiver of note. Actually, writing Lanxter is a receiver of "note" is a bit of a misnomer. He participated in only a handful of plays last year, but the coaches are excited about his potential to stretch the field. With Lyons being the only returning receiver with more catches than me, Lanxter's talent will assure him a spot on the field.
Alfonso Smith will be the only Blue team running back with experience. This can't bode well for the Blue's chances of success at running the ball. Smith possesses both breakaway speed and an ability to elude, but he will be relying on inexperienced backs to lend a helping hand. Of course that's one of the reasons they play these games; to gauge the youngsters in a real-game scenario.
The defensive secondary for the Blue team is also loaded with experience and talent. Marcus McClinton, Randall Burden, David "I'm Faster Than You" Jones, Ashton Cobb and A. J. Grigsby will represent the Blue with blazing speed and a radar-like nose for the ball. These young men are the reason the coaching staff is so excited about the defensive secondary (along with stars Lindley and Warford) for the upcoming season.
The strength of the '09 UK football team may lie with its offensive and defensive lines. On the offensive side of the line Garry Williams, Justin Jefferies, Zipp Duncan, Josh Winchell, Jess Beets, Brad Durham and Jake Lanefski are all battling for starting positions. Williams, Duncan, Jefferies, and Durham are most likely going to be four of the starters along the O-line. With a veritable stable of talented running backs this crew is vitally important to UK's success next year. If they achieve as projected, I look for MAYBE two 1,000 yard rushers. The graduated Jason Leger will be missed, but I see a bright and bountiful future for the O-lineman.
The defensive line returns not the quantity their offensive counterparts enjoy, but they are rich in experience and talent. Corey Peters, Josh Minton, Ventrell Jenkins, Myron Pryor and Jeremy Jarmon are all established, known commodities. Pryor, when healthy, is a monster at the defensive tackle position.
Stopping the run is the key to winning in the SEC. UK had moderate success last year, but they must continue to improve in that area. This group has also proven to be strong pass rushers, and I have no reason to believe they won't perform equally as affective in '09 as they did in '08.
QB Battle: I don't have anything insightful to write about this on-going battle, but Brooks must have faith. Faith that either Pulley, or Hartline are capable of running a pro style offense. Brooks recently announced that UK would not be running the "spread" offense, or any variation thereof. To me this means that Brooks and Phillips are confident that one of the two players can handle the responsiblity of stretching the defense, in order to open up the run. Papa Brooks is the "Midas Man" in my book, so I look forward to seeing his faith rewarded with solid quarterback play.
Of course we all know that the running game will be the skill position strength of this years team. Tony Dixon, Derrick Locke, Alfonso Smith, and John Connor are quite the fearsome foursome (is that nickname already taken?). Health; that is the key. If these guys can remain healthy, which hasn't happened for a couple of years now, then UK should pile up the yards.
Catching the ball out of the backfield should be a tradition that is continued. With the loss of Rafael Little one would almost expect a dropoff of production in that area, but I feel Derrick Locke and Alfonso Smith can make up for Little's lost catches. If so, that would certainly relieve some of the pressure placed on UK's next starting quartberback.
Receivers: Who knows? Not me. I know Dicky Lyons and DeMareo Ford, but Ford is in danger of not playing in '09 due to injury. According to my limited mathematical knowledge that leaves exactly one receiver with meaningful experience. I do think that a couple of guys will emerge, though. As noted above, Kyrus Lanxter should provide an opportunity to stretch the field, but he'll be green. Incoming freshmen E.J. Fields and Aaron Boyd could both challenge for playing time at the receiver spot. They're both great athletes, who were recruited as difference-makers.
Linebackers: Losing Wesley Woodyard would be a blow to any major college football program, but UK has a wealth of players ready to step up and take over the role of enforcer. Micah Johnson, Braxton Kelley, Sam Maxwell, Johnny Williams, Antonio Thomas, and Michael Schwindel will all see time at the position this year. The depth these players provide is exceptional, and something past UK teams were not blessed with. I am a big Kelley fan, and I look for him to step up as the leader of this group. Micah Johnson made strides last year in his ability to play affectively in passing downs, if he can continue to improve at his previous rate, he will become the player Brooks knew he was getting out of high school.
Kicking Game: Seiber's to lose.
Punting Game: Masthay's to lose.
Injuries: Tony Dixon will not play, he has a strained medial collateral ligament. TE Maurice Grinter will not play, he is nursing a shoulder.
The game is at 1:00. Parking and game admission are free, so head on over if you can.
Thanks for reading, and Go Blue, Go White!