LEXINGTON – The Kentucky Wildcats are clearly a better team going into this season than they were at this point a year ago, according to veteran head coach Rich Brooks.
Brooks made that announcement Friday at UK’s football media day after spending several minutes being questioned about his team’s prospects at quarterback – junior Mike Hartline is the No. 1 guy but did not inspire confidence from a lot of UK fans a year ago – defensive end – losing Jeremy Jarmon hurts immensely – and running back – senior Alfonso Smith has always held immense promise but has been held back by nagging injuries.
“All I know is we’re a better team than we were at this stage last year, and in my mind, we’re clearly a better team,” said Brooks, whose Wildcats open against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 5 at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium – kickoff is at noon. “Offensively we’re a team that had virtually lost all of its production going into last season, and this year we return probably 80 percent of it. And the experience those players gained last season is making them better going into this season. Plus, we’ve added a few new pieces to the puzzle, and I’m anxious to see how they play out in practice.”
Still, when asked if his team could be better but have a lesser record than last year’s 7-6 mark, Brooks reluctantly said yes. And he pointed to a Kentucky schedule that quickly turns to a murderer’s row after the opener with Miami and the second game, a Sept. 19 home test against rival Louisville.
The two Wildcat opponents after that are No. 1 Florida on Sept. 26 and No. 5 Alabama on Oct. 3, followed by road tilts against South Carolina on Oct. 10 – a team and a coach (Steve Spurrier) that Kentucky never beats – and at Auburn on Oct. 17. Auburn is down, but the game is on the road.
“We have to go out and win games, and we all know the schedule can be very difficult in this league, and particularly the front part of our league schedule,” Brooks said. “Even though we’re at home the first two (SEC) games, we get probably the top two ranked teams in the conference right off the bat...not only in our conference but probably in the nation.”
Brooks was asked early in Friday’s press conference about the presence of two of the highest-rated prep quarterbacks UK has ever signed, period, let alone in the same class – Morgan Newton of Carmel, Ind., and Ryan Mossakowski from Frisco, Texas.
“I’m excited about Newton and Mossakowski, but I haven’t really had a chance to coach them and be on the field with them and see them throw the out, see them throw the fade, see them throw the post...” Brooks said. “I need to observe them. In a couple of weeks I’ll probably have a lot better feel for those two.
“Obviously we were impressed with them, or we wouldn’t have offered them scholarships,” Brooks added. “I’m excited they chose to come to Kentucky. Now we just have to see where their progress is in making the transition from high school to college. At their position it’s often a more difficult task than at some other positions.”
Brooks is keenly aware that many in UK’s fan base would LOVE to see one of the freshmen be the No. 1 guy in place of last year’s starter, Hartline.
Hartline never came close to pleasing the fans but somehow managed six wins in nine games as the starting quarterback, including a nice showing in the Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina.
Unfortunately Hartline came back with a poor showing in the spring game last April.
“I listen, I read, I hear, (but) Mike Hartline is our guy,” Brooks insisted Friday as the team prepared to start preseason practice later in the day. “We’ll see how that progresses and see if other people step up and challenge him. But right now there’s no question who our starting quarterback will be for the Miami of Ohio game.”
Hartline has never lacked for confidence, despite last year’s up and down campaign – his first as a starting QB at UK.
“It’s really dramatic how much more comfortable I am right now,” Hartline said Friday. “No. 1, you work with the guys a lot more and you just become more comfortable with them. But what also helps is the relationships with them. You feel more comfortable about talking with them. You can get on them a little more. You want to take care of your business first, but you’re able to take more of a leadership role.”
The rest of the offense
When asked if he’s comfortable with the UK quarterbacks, sophomore Randall Cobb – the team’s best athlete – replied: “I’ve always had confidence in Mike. I believe last year the problem was we didn’t have anybody around him to help Mike. One of the receivers’ biggest goals this year is to give him confidence in us.”
Cobb was one of a handful of promising but very green wide receivers last year for the Wildcats, a group that included Frankfort High graduate E.J. Fields.
Cobb could start at any one of probably three positions and be the best Wildcat at that spot – wideout, running back and quarterback.
The obvious hope is that Hartline – or Newton, Mossakowski or even junior Will Fidler – will do well enough at quarterback this time around to leave Cobb as a scary wide out.
“Randall is one of those guys who will do whatever is best for this football team,” said Brooks, who plans to use Cobb similar to how Florida used Percy Harvin last season – everywhere.
Brooks said Fidler is No. 2 at quarterback, at least until he assesses the freshmen.
If the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Smith can stay healthy, Brooks will feel better about the running back spot. If, if, if. Health has been a problem for Smith throughout his UK career. He has great speed and quickness.
“Alfonso can make an impact on a regular basis,” Brooks said. “The only question I have is can he stay healthy long enough to do it. He’s put on weight in anticipation of trying to stay healthy. In this league it’s tough to stay healthy. But there’s no doubt in my mind this could be a major year for him.”
Hopes are also high for the able return of junior Derrick Locke, who had a leg more or less fall off early last season but has worked very hard to return.
“Derrick is looking good,” Hartline said of Locke. “I think he’s going to have a great year for us.”
Everyone is excited about the addition of junior college wide out, Chris Matthews, a 6-foot-6, fast, quick guy with great hands.
“I’m very anxious to look at Chris Matthews at receiver and see how he’s going to improve our receiving corps,” Brooks says. “I have a good feeling about him.”
As far as other areas go, Brooks said his offensive line is talented and experienced, the defensive line is woefully short of experience at end but has promising youngsters on hand, and two seniors – Micah Johnson and Lindley, anchor talented groups at linebacker, and in the secondary, respectively.
The kicking game is a question mark with kickoff man and punter, Tim Masthay – gone via graduation – and Lones Seiber back for his senior year at placekicker.
Seiber is somehow in position to become the school’s all-time leading scorer this season, though everyone – including Brooks – questions his consistency.
What many don’t know, however, is that Seiber has been nagged off and on by an injury to his hip that required surgery just prior to his arrival at Kentucky three years ago.
“He seems to have settled down a bit,” Brooks said of Seiber Friday. “We need for him obviously to be more consistent.”
If he isn’t, sophomore Ryan Tydlacka will be the place kicker. Tydlacka will at least handle kickoffs and punting.
TV and the SEC
Brooks touched on one other item of note Friday when asked about an SEC tie-in with ESPN and CBS that was announced several months ago.
Brooks raved about the impact on UK and the rest of the conference, which is saying something given that Brooks at 68 has been around the block a time or two as a coach.
“I think the SEC contract is one of the bigger developments in college football in 50 years,” Brooks said. “It’s beyond huge. The impact for the SEC is long lasting. It’s exposure beyond anybody else’s belief in college football. The fact that our games are going to be on CBS or ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN regional...and we’re talking national markets except for ESPN regional.
“All other TV packages for BCS leagues are regionalized pretty much,” Brooks added. “The SEC is national. And I think you’re seeing the impact that the SEC has in going everywhere and recruiting more good football players. Hopefully more of those schools in our league will go off and recruit in other places and leave more of them in the rich states around Kentucky for us to recruit.”