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UK Football: A three-week work in progress

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With the glow of the thoroughly Chuck Norris-like deconstruction of the once proud Louisville Cardinals slowly fading into our memory bank, the reality of what this football team needs to accomplish over the next three weeks has quickly become apparent.  And by the way, for those of you who had unkind, and questioning words for Mitch Barnhart and Rich Brooks for producing a 'weak' non-conference schedule, you may now meekly bow with a softly spoken "well done" for the two scheduling geniuses.  Well, "geniuses" may be overstating the case a bit, but whether it was wisdom or luck, the timing of playing Norfolk St., Middle Tennessee, and WKU in preparation for the SEC opener in Tuscaloosa, can be described as nothing short of perfection.

So as we enter into a three week preparation period, I have put together what I feel are the most vital areas that Kentucky needs to concentrate on in order to be fully capable of beating the likes of Arkansas, South Carolina, Mississippi St, and Vanderbilt.  But just as important; at minimum UK needs to be also "fully capable"of being competitive with Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee ( the Vols look very beatable, at this point ).  But, in order for all of that to come to fruition, this honey-do list needs to be checked off one by one:

Get the ball to Randall Cobb

Sometimes it's indescribable; when a player has that extra bit of talent, that 'something' that makes him special.  Well, that's what Cobb has.  He only caught three balls for 31 yards Sunday, but it was readily apparent to even the most near-sighted fan that this kid oozes talent:

  • The ball fits so naturally between his forearm and chest ( I think he sleeps with a football ). 
  • Somebody check his hands for 'stickum', because the ball seemed more captured than caught, when it was thrown his way.
  • He went from standing nearly stationary, to a full blown gallop quicker than the Porsche 911 I wish was sitting in my driveway.
  • He's as smooth a runner as one will ever see; he seems to glide more than run.  I've seen this in players before, and it's never a bad thing.

Joker Phillips must find a way to utilize Mr. Cobb more in the offense, and I am sure he realizes that fact himself.  So I would look for Cobb to be on the receiving end of more hand-offs, more passes, and more punts over the next few weeks.  Remember, when one has a weapon of this caliber, one has to take it out, and show it off from time to time.

Get the offensive line to block

The loss of starting guard Garry Williams ( cartilage tear ) for at least the next two to three weeks certainly doesn't help this unit.  And after the performance they put on Sunday, they need all their healthy, experienced bodies on the field, not on the training table.  

When a teams running backs are either hit at, or behind the line of scrimmage on half of their carries, then the O-line needs to refocus, and rededicate itself to protecting and serving the backs.  Rich Brooks wasn't as harsh, but he did have this to say about the offensive line's performance:

"We had some problems with the snap count and getting off the ball in a noisy environment.  I thought the line was out of sync and our fundamental footwork wasn't what it needs to be."

I suppose that's the result of inexperience playing in a big game, and in a big environment.  After-all, two of the up-front four are of meager experience; center Jorge Gonzalez's first start was Sunday, and Zipp Duncan only started playing offensive guard last year ( he was recruited as a tight end ).  James Alexander has been fighting an injury all fall ( he may start Saturday in place of Williams ), and with the loss of Christian Johnson ( redshirt ), that leaves only Justin Jefferies, and the injured Garry Williams as the lone experienced offensive line members.  On the bright side, Williams being out for the next couple of weeks will be a terrific opportunity for redshirt freshman Billy Joe Murphy and Alexander to gain some valuable experience.

Whatever the reason for Sunday's poor O-line performance, it has to be fixed.  If they can't run the ball, then UK is in for a long and forgettable season; I don't care how good their defense plays. 

But all is not lost.  They have three weeks to correct the mistakes, and gain some confidence, which is what I am sure will happen.  If not, cue the fat lady.

Note to readers: To be fair, coach Brooks did offer up a bit of criticism of the running backs for their performance.  I believe his words, though, were a bit of misdirection on his part; he doesn't want to lay all of the responsibility for the offense's shortcomings at the feet of such a young group.  If that is in fact the case, then I applaud his coaching style, and I believe as always, that he will fix what is broken. 

Continue to grow Mike Hartline 

UK's quarterback play Sunday, while not spectacular, was certainly competent, and it inspired confidence that Hartline is the man to lead this team ( for those few 'message board' types who think Hartline should be shelved in favor of Cobb at quarterback, I have one piece of advice; increase the medication dosage ). 

"I thought Hartline did a great job managing the offense and not making the critical errors.  I thought he showed real poise out there handling the game, and not taking unnecessary risks with the ball."

So said Rich Brooks.

"Considering the fact that we didn't run the ball, I think that makes his performance even more impressive.  Usually with a young quarterback you want to establish a running game to help him out, and we didn't have that today."

So said Joker Phillips.

Now, over the next three games I want to see Hartline progress.  He clearly has the mental tools with which to handle the pressures of the position, and he seems to have the physical tools as well ( catchable ball, accurate for the most part, adequate arm ).  So over the next three games, I want to see those 'tools' on full display. 

He will need some help, of course; there were several drops on what should have been easy catches, and I'm sure there were problems with route running; both of those ailments are a product of having a young receiving corps.  I feel that all Hartline needs is some chemistry to develop between himself and his receivers ( paging Randall Cobb ), and UK's passing game will be good enough to win.  But that chemistry is usually borne out of battles fought side-by-side, so live-game snaps are the only antidote.  Just another reason to love the schedule-maker.

Don't allow the defensive unit to become complacent or overconfident

Over the next three games the defense will have occasion to pulverize and demoralize their opponents, but they can't let dominating the upcoming competition swell their hat sizes to that of Barry Bonds.

The defense needs to continue to play the same way they played Sunday; with great intensity, great technique, and with bad intentions.  Don't let up, don't feel sorry for anyone, and don't let it go to your head.  Players like Jeremy Jarmon, Trevard Lindley, Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, and Marcus McClinton have all been through the SEC wars.  They know this conference, 'ain't no joke,' and I expect to see that mindset as they progress through the schedule.

But for now defense, just remember, you ain't as 'bad' as you think you are, and continue to work and improve.  'Bama is just around the corner.  

So as we head into the next three contests, keep an eye out for the above listed items to be satisfactorily executed.  Unless the Titanic sinks, UK should be 4-0 going into the game in Tuscaloosa.  Then the real fun starts.

Thanks for reading, and a big thanks to the 'Dores!  If my math is correct that is two years in a row.  Woe is the 'ole ball coach.'