This is not where Kentucky football wants to be, or where its fans though the program would be just two years ago. Yes, the Wildcats finished the 2011 season by finally beating rival Tennessee, and in the process likely saving head coach Joker Phillips’ job. But Kentucky missed out on the postseason and most pundits believe the Wildcats will be worse this year than last – perhaps far worse thanks to graduation losses on defense. If Kentucky can get its quarterback situation straight, it will go a long way toward saving Phillips and putting the Wildcats back in the postseason discussion. But this is a thin team with question marks all over the place.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, C, RG, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDE, RDT, LDT, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 3-9 (ARK, MSU, UF, UGA, UL, USC, MIZ, VU, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 0-8 (ARK, MSU, UF, UGA, USC, MIZ, VU, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 0-6 (UF, UGA, USC, MIZ, VU, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Pr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Fr
Kentucky has been back and forth between a traditional I-formation offense and more of a pro spread offense recently, and for 2012 seem to have settled on the spread as its base. There is plety of experience at the offensive skill positions, but Kentucky struggled getting the ball to is playmakers in 2011. Spring practice provided some optimism in that regard, but it’s all talk until the Wildcats do it against opponents other than themselves.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Fr; 5th SEC East, 9th overall)
As far as experience goes, Kentucky has more than most. When the discussion turns to effectiveness, however, the story changes. Maxwell Smith took over at quarterback late in the year and did an admirable job until an injury cut his season short. He had a strong spring and has looked good this fall. This is a good thing, because Morgan Newton has proved to be an unmitigated bust. Newton can’t pull the trigger, has poor field vision and purely in terms of effectiveness, has been one of the worst SEC quarterbacks in years. Whether he can make it as a backup is unclear, but it would surprise no one if true freshman Patrick Towles takes the job before year’s end. Another true freshman, Jalen Whitlow, could play a role as a Wildcat quarterback. The takeaway here is Smith needs to stay upright.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 12th overall)
He isn’t big, but CoShik Williams is an underrated SEC running back. He’s got above-average speed and runs tough despite his small size. Kentucky’s problem is there is very little behind him that is proven, or effective. Raymond Sanders will be Williams’ backup, and like Williams, size is an issue. The larger Josh Clemons and Jonathan George round out the top group. Kentucky doesn’t figure to use a fullback as much this year as in past seasons, but when they do, Darrell Warren is the likely choice.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 13th overall)
Kentucky has one bona fide star player, La’Rod King, who managed to catch 600 yards worth of passes and 7 touchdowns in 2011 despite all the problems under center. King is 6’4”, 215 pounds and may have a pro future if Smith can get him the ball. There is plenty of experience around him, as Kentucky has three seniors in the top rotation, but the fact of the matter is few of them have lived up to expectations. Eugene McCaskill and E.J. Fields are the other two likely starters along with Aaron Boyd. Sophomore Demarco Robinson is trying to crash the all-senior party, however. Redshirt freshman Daryl Collins, once an Alabama commitment, will probably have some role as well. Ronnie Shields is the new tight end, while Tyler Robinson and Anthony Kendrick are also competing there. This would be a good time for several veterans to step up and finish their careers in strong fashion.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 11th overall)
Kentucky has been erratic the past few seasons at offensive line. In some years, the Wildcats weren’t expected to do much but turned out to be above average; in others, big things were expected but the Wildcats failed to live up to expectations. This year looks like more the former than the latter, as not much is expected out of this group. One exception is right guard Larry Warford, an all-SEC candidate who has a future at the next level. He’s huge at 6’3”, 340 pounds and is the undisputed leader of the group. Senior center Matt Smith returns, and junior Kevin Mitchell gives the Wildcats an experienced right side of the line. The left side, though, is completely the opposite. Freshman Zack West will start at left guard with sophomore Darrian Miller at left tackle. Tyler Davenport and Trevino Woods will back up the tackle positions while Teven Eatmon-Nared handles the guards. Solidifying the left side is the chief concern right now.
The Wildcats typically base from a 4-3, but defensive coordinator Rick Minter has been experimenting with some 3-4 and 3-1-3 Jack-split formations. Regardless of what formation the Wildcats use, improvement is the name of the game. The Wildcats couldn’t stop the run in 2011 (87th nationally) despite having a veteran front seven. Most of the defensive line returns intact, but that may not necessarily be a good thing unless some improvement is made against the run. Given that the linebacker corps is being completely rebuilt, don’t look for much good news in 2012.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 5th SEC East, 9th overall)
In theory, Kentucky should be strong with a line that includes Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble inside and Collins Ukwu and Taylor Windham outside. But Kentucky was just 83rd in sacks in 2011 and had a tremendous amount of trouble keeping running backs contained. When the Wildcats go 3-1-3, Windham will come off the field in favor of a rush linebacker. Depth inside is OK, with Tristian Johnson and Christian Coleman the two primary backups there. Farrington Huguenin is Ukwu’s understudy, while Mike Douglas is also available. Size is an issue across the board, primarily with the backups, and Kentucky can ill afford any injuries.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Pr; 7th SEC East, 14th overall)
The situation here borders on dire, as all starters are new. Middle linebacker Avery Williamson is probably the best of the bunch, while Malcolm McDuffen is the new starter at weakside linebacker. Minter’s hybrid scheme asks a lot of the “Rush” position linebacker, Alvin Dupree, while the fourth linebacker spot is essentially a large safety, Miles Simpson. Whether Dupree, McDuffen or Simpson is on the field depends on the personnel grouping, so all three are rarely if ever out there together. TraVaughn Paschal and Demarius Rancifer are the key backups, along with Tyler Brause. Jabari Johnson adds depth. There will be a lot going on here in terms of schemes and movement, perhaps too much for this group to embrace.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av; 5th SEC East, 9th overall)
Kentucky did well against the pass statistically, but this group still underachieved in 2011 relative to what its potential was. Longtime backup Cartier Rice elevates to a starting cornerback position, while a freshman, Marcus Caffey, is the likely starter opposite him. Eric Simmons and Eric Dixon are their backups. The starting safeties of a year ago, Mikie Benton and Martavius Neloms, return. Glenn Faulkner and Ashely Lowery provide depth along with Josh Forrest. Kentucky fans should expect this bunch to be solid at worst.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Fr; 4th SEC East, 9th overall)
The Wildcats have had a history of producing good kickers, and Craig McIntosh was no exception in 2011, missing just 2 kicks. He returns, but the punting position is up in the air after Ryan Tydlacka’s graduation. Jay Wilmott and Landon Foster are competing for the position along with Joe Mansour. The other issue for the Wildcats is the return game, where the normally-solid Cats were horrid in all phases in 2011. Raymond Sanders and Demarco Robinson are the most likely candidates there.
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