LEXINGTON - One of the few nice things about this time of year sports-wise is what I call the out-of-sight, out-of-mind (mostly) aspect of University of Kentucky football.
In other words, it’s easy this time of year – nearly seven months since the end of the 2011 season and a couple of months since the Blue-White spring game – to forget how frequently uncompetitive the Wildcats were this past season.
It’s easier this time of year to increase the rose tint to our glasses and see hope rise that there may be improvement in Joker Phillips’ Wildcats this coming season.
It’s easier to believe that maybe the Wildcats, 5-7 this past season, can look like they belong on the same field as the Louisville Cardinals when those two rivals open the season Sept. 2 in Louisville (3:30 p.m. kickoff on ESPN).
I have recently talked to a few so-called experts, people I respect, who suggest that the 2012 UK football season may go better than most of us expect.
I’m not sure I see it, but I will say this: I do believe there is enough talent scattered about, especially on offense, to feel like there is some hope for significant improvement from a year ago.
The hope starts with improvement at quarterback in sophomore Matthew Smith, who was spotty in the spring game, or with incoming star freshman QB Patrick Towles. My hope is that Smith will be good enough to be an SEC level quarterback this season and allow UK to redshirt Towles, giving Towles two years of eligibility down the road after Smith is gone. Though, this is, no doubt, not Towles’ goal and probably not the goal of a lot of UK football fans, who want to see Towles on the field sooner rather than later.
Kentucky should be better at wide receiver than the Wildcats have been since the best of the Rich Brooks’ teams. Here’s hoping that senior E.J. Fields from Frankfort comes into his own in his last season as a Wildcat.
It’s a less certain picture at running back. The hope is junior Raymond Sanders will be better and that sophomore Josh Clemons will be back from injury and improved. I believe Clemons has star power, but there are some who believe he’s too fragile and too tentative at the point of attack to handle the physicality of the SEC.
Senior tailback CoShik Williams was decent down the stretch last season, but I’m not sure that’s good enough to carry an offense in the Southeastern Conference.
There are at least a couple freshman backs we hope will make a splash as well.
The offensive line lost some key guys, but standout Larry Warford is a good one to build around. Still, depth is a major problem there, as it usually is.
Defense? Well, with linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy gone to the NFL, who knows? There are some young guys that the UK coaches are genuinely excited about, and I feel dead certain that defensive coordinator Rick Minter knows what he’s doing. Still, there’s plenty of reason to worry that this Kentucky defensive unit may be too young and too thin to slow many people down at the SEC level. Or even the Big East level, for that matter … I cringe to think of what Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals’ offense can do right out of the gate, on Sept. 2.
Kentucky standout wide receiver La’Rod King said this week in the Lexington Herald-Leader that he “hates” the Cardinals. Fine, but I’m not sure that vibe will translate to effective play from the UK defense, and that may be a critical problem.
Also, do Phillips and his coaches know what they are doing? I’m not being sarcastic. I’m sincere. I am not knowledgeable enough to have a good feel for that. It’s hard to forget the 3rd-and-five call that went to then freshman Morgan Newton instead of Randall Cobb two-plus years ago against Tennessee, but that was an isolated deal. A big one, but, again, isolated. Not that I’m having trouble getting past that play. No sir.
In other words, how much of the slippage in Kentucky football these past two years under Phillips is due to coaching issues and how much is a dip in talent? It’s some of both, probably, but how much blame falls on either side?
The only way I could better gauge that is if someone else, say, Mike Leach, was the Kentucky coach. Oh, wait, Leach took the Washington State job this past offseason. So, never mind on that one.
Will Kentucky play well enough early this season to lend enough security to Phillips as head coach to lure a recruit like Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons, who I believe has Randall Cobb-like talent, only with greater speed?
Last, it’s easier now, again, removed from the heat of battle, to focus a little less on any coaching issues and even talent issues, and look a little closer at what a good guy Joker Phillips is.
I want Phillips and his staff to succeed. Phillips is a pleasure to deal with as a media member. He’s both kind and professional. He’s a UK graduate, a former player here, and he clearly loves the university and his football program.
Phillips may not always answer questions to our liking, but he rarely ducks a question. And in my experience in recent years, you can say the same things about his players.
But, Phillips knows very well that any good will UK fans may have towards Joker Phillips the person will be quickly trumped by negativism towers Joker Phillips the coach if the 2012 Wildcats do not get off to a good start.
And that good start may have to include a win over Louisville.