As August football practice begins the drive toward the September 1st game with the Louisville Cardinals, we are getting news from the team in drips and drabs. This article it part 1 of a series which will examine the strengths of the Kentucky football team as they are expected to materialize this year.
Despite his best efforts to be consistent and positive without over-hyping the team, Joker Phillips has made no discernible impact on the skepticism of the fan base. This attitude from the fans is very much, "I'll believe it when I see it," and honestly, it's hard to blame them after watching Kentucky struggle so mightily on offense last year. Even the ending of that horrible Tennessee streak was not enough, on balance, to give UK fans good feelings about last year. It was pretty much four straight months of ugly, mostly futile football, and ugly football, even when successful, doesn't please a team's partisans.
So what is different this year? It turns out that there are a couple of things that may make Kentucky more competitive than fans expect right now. A lot of the fan's negativity is a holdover memory from last year, combined with a little too much hype by the coaching staff in the previous two. You know the old saying, "fool me once ..."
But this team does have some strong points, which are likely to matter. The #1 strength of the Wildcats offensively in 2012 is the running back corps, which is one of the more remarkable in Kentucky history.
Kentucky has never, in my memory, been anything like this deep with quality running backs. Strong recruiting by Phillips & Co. have brought in two freshmen, Dy'Shawn Mobley and Justin Taylor, who are SEC quality and capable of seeing major time this year. Both these guys are big, strong boys with speed and durability.
But the freshmen aren't the meat of the lineup. CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders, Josh Clemons and Jonathan George form a core group of backs that have demonstrated ability at the position. Both Sanders and Clemons were injured for large swaths of last year, and George was playing only his second year in major college football after redshirting in 2009. If Clemons is ready, this lineup looks very capable. Clemons and George both have good size to compliment the speedy, slashing Williams and Sanders.
If Clemons is not ready, Phillips has indicated a desire to redshirt him, which would likely open up a spot for one or both of the freshmen to see some time. Mobley broke the Tennessee high school career rushing record last year at 5A Powell High School. Ignored by the Tennessee Volunteers in favor of Ohio's Alden Hill, Tennessee did not need many running backs in 2012, signing only two. Both Vanderbilt and Mississippi St. offered Mobley, but former UK assistant Tee Martin convinced him that Kentucky was the best fit. You will be hearing a lot from this kid if he keeps his head about him. He's been in trouble a time or two in high school, but hopefully has all that sorted out now.
Mobley is a powerful, physical runner who may be one of the strongest Wildcats, deadlifting 700# back in July, and was a two-way player at Powell, also playing linebacker on defense.
The other exciting freshman is Justin Taylor, an Alabama Crimson Tide commitment who tore his ACL just before his senior year. Alabama revised their offer to a grayshirt, and Taylor demurred, choosing the Wildcats instead. Taylor was displeased at the way Nick Saban handled the situation:
On Wednesday night, Taylor was happy to be finished with a troubling few weeks, and looked forward to playing against his former team, Alabama. "The way they talked to me, they respected me … but as far as pulling the scholarship, I think they did me wrong. I was the No. 7 to commit, that’s all I’ve got to say. I was committed to them for a year. They could’ve handled it better."
Taylor's running style is described as "bruising:"
Justin Taylor, a bruising running back from Atlanta's Booker T. Washington High School, verbally committed to Alabama on Monday morning.
Taylor (5-10, 215 pounds) said he was speaking with an Alabama assistant through his Facebook page, and that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban wanted to speak with him.
That's the kind of player Kentucky desperately needs in the backfield, as UK has had a tendency to have smaller, less durable runners that have trouble getting through tough SEC seasons. Here is what outsidethesidelines of Roll 'Bama Roll said about him after he committed:
Unlike Kenyan Drake, who is really more of a pure athlete playing tailback on the prep level, Taylor is built more in the traditional mold of a Nick Saban tailback, specifically meaning that he's a stocky, powerful runner who doesn't hesitate to get north to south when he is handed the football.
Taylor, Mobley, Clemons and George all bring a physicality to the Kentucky running back corps that we have not seen at Kentucky in many years. Combined with the speed and quickness of Sanders and Williams, this is unquestionably the deepest and most talented stable of backs that Kentucky has had since ... well, pretty much ever.
Can the line open running lanes for these guys? We don't know. Can the passers pass and the catchers catch well enough to exploit a strong running game if the line is effective? We don't know. In any case, both these things will be examined a little later in more depth.
But one thing we do know, and that is if Kentucky does struggle, as so many seem to expect, it is not likely to be because of a lack of talented runners in the backfield.