LEXINGTON – Notes and quotes from the University of Kentucky football camp as the Wildcats and rival Louisville Cardinals prepare to open the season Sunday in Louisville:
What folks SHOULD be wondering around here is how in the world will Kentucky’s woefully young secondary (due to academic and health casualties) do with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and his talented corps of wide receivers.
The answer may be hope for an extremely heavy fog cover brought about by Hurricane Isaac, heavy enough to be around for a 3:30 kickoff on ESPN Sunday.
What UK fans ARE wondering is how much better will the Wildcats’ offense be over an anemic bunch from one year ago.
The expected improvement starts with the projected growth of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith; running backs CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders and a pair of freshmen who have wowed everyone in camp. They are Dyshawn Mobley from Powell, Tenn., just outside Knoxville, who rushed for some 3,000 yards last season, and Justin Taylor from Atlanta. There are also several wide receivers who have generated buzz in pre-season camp, including Frankfort’s own E.J. Fields, La’Rod King, Gene McCaskill, Aaron Boyd and youngsters Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins, along with tight end Tyler Robinson.
Fields is listed first string on the depth chart, in fact, coming into this game.
“I’m really proud of Aaron Boyd and E.J.,’’ UK coach Joker Phillips said Monday. “Both of those guys have been waiting and waiting and waiting, and now I think the time has come for those guys to play big roles for us. They’ve done a really good job helping the young guys, also.”
Phillips said he believes the playmakers he hoped to have last season at the skill positions will come to life this time around.
“I thought we had a couple playmakers at wide receiver last year, but we didn’t show it,” he said. “I think we have more depth at the play-making positions this year.
“And I feel real good about Max Smith. He’s playing at a real high level, getting the ball out of his hands. He’s really efficient in how consistent he is, throwing strikes, putting the ball at eye level for receivers. He’s not going to be a guy who beats you with his legs. We all know that. But he can beat you with his arm, and he can beat you with his mind.”
Smith came on in mid-season a year ago for injured Morgan Newton and played a couple of good games and a couple that were so-so.
Smith appears to be a pretty grounded guy about the all the hoopla surrounding his potential.
“I haven’t done anything,” Smith said Monday. “I haven’t proven anything to anyone. So that’s what I’m here to do, to prove I can play and move the ball up and down the field, and hopefully score some touchdowns.”
Smith pointed to the 5-foot-9, 178-pound Williams at running back as exhibit A on the UK improvement list on the offensive side of the ball.
“CoShik is much better now than he was last year at this point,” Smith said. “He is showing that he can be a really good back in this league. And I’m confident our offensive line is going to do a good job. And I’m looking for our receivers to do some big things as well.”
The UK coaches appear to be cautiously optimistic that the Wildcats’ Matt Smith and Larry Warford-led offensive line will be better than most people expect, though there is virtually no depth you can count on there should the injury bug hit that area.
CATS RELISH UNDERDOG ROLE
The early line for this game has the Louisville Cardinals a 14-point favorite.
Asked Monday if he likes being the underdog, Phillips replied: “I do. I mean, what an opportunity for us. This is a great opportunity for us to play against a top-25 team (U of L is ranked No. 25 in the nation in one poll) in our first game.”
“I hadn’t heard that,” Maxwell Smith said about the 14-point spread. “We’ll find out Sunday if they’re two touchdowns better than us, you know? I think everybody likes being the underdog, if that’s what we are.”
“I love being the underdog because the pressure is off of us,” Matt Smith said. “We have nothing to lose, so we have to go out there and play the game we know how to play. We’re hoping to shock a lot of people.”
TOO MUCH TALK?
Every Monday during the football season, starting this week, UK (and most other college football teams) have a press conference to promote that week’s game. In Kentucky’s case, Phillips came to Monday’s session with Maxwell Smith, Matt Smith, senior defensive end Collins Ukwu and junior linebacker Avery Williamson.
The coaches have raved about the play of the 6-1, 243-pound Williamson, who will not only see considerable playing time for the first time, but is being counted on to anchor the Wildcats’ woefully young back seven.
These players, and all the Wildcats for that matter, are coached to know what to say and what not to say to the media. In other words, don’t give your opponent any bulletin board material.
Williamson, bless his heart, strayed off the plan on Monday.
Asked if the Kentucky defense can exceed last year’s lowly total of 20 sacks, Williamson smiled and replied: “Oh yeah, I’m real confident about that. I plan on getting me some sacks this game, too. I feel like a bullet on the edge. That’s where we can cause havoc, I feel like.
“We have a great defensive line. I feel like we really should get some hits on the quarterback (Bridgewater). I love to hit the quarterback. I haven’t really had a chance to hit the quarterback since I’ve been here – minimal playing time – but I’m excited about it. I’m ready.”
Ukwu, a 6-5, 253-pounder, showed the restraint a veteran should when the media tried to bait him about this game.
“I don’t want to say anything,” Ukwu said when asked about a possible UK upset. “Hopefully, you won’t be surprised to see how hard we play. I WILL tell you that we will play very hard this game.”