LEXINGTON – Former University of Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips tried to tell us until he was even bluer in the face that there were good athletes scattered throughout his roster this past season. Most of it was simply inexperienced.
I believe Phillips.
That’s a significant reason why I am so optimistic about the arrival of coach Mark Stoops as the head man here, along with a staff that appears pretty dynamic, led by offensive coordinator Neal Brown and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.
I believe Stoops and company can take that talent on the current roster and put the players in positions to succeed in systems better suited to their talents.
Though that’s largely a gut feeling.
I’m not Mel Kiper.
It would also help if the Wildcats stay healthier in 2013 then they did in 2012.
The biggest question in my mind is the makeup of the offensive line, with Kentucky losing standout guard Larry Warford and center Matt Smith to graduation.
Here’s a snapshot look at prospects on both sides of the ball. And this doesn’t, mind you, include help that could arrive via recruiting, such as Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons.
First, the quarterback spot. The No. 1 reason UK’s hopes fell apart this past season was the leg injury to quarterback Maxwell Smith on the first play from scrimmage of the fourth game against South Carolina.
New offensive coordinator Neal Brown says there will be an open competition this spring and into fall at QB with Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles fighting for No. 1. All three will be sophomores this fall.
This is what I think: Smith could very well be one of the best half dozen quarterbacks, not only in the SEC but in the country … easily the best at Kentucky since Tim Couch more than a decade ago.
Smith is good enough for the Wildcats to win with this coming season. The national accolades may be another year away. That’s why Phillips and the previous staff built an offense designed pretty exclusively around the talents of Smith, only to see it blow up in their faces due to the season-ending injury.
I hope that Towles nails down the No. 2 spot. Towles did not show much this past season in limited duty as a freshman, but most of that was not his fault and is not worth dwelling on now. Towles was simply one of the victims of the dysfunction on the Kentucky roster after the Smith plan fell apart.
Smith’s replacement, Whitlow, is capable of growing into an SEC caliber quarterback.
I would prefer Towles over Whitlow at backup simply because Whitlow could use his considerable athletic gifts at other positions, most likely a slot type receiver/Wildcat guy, whereas Towles is pretty much quarterback or bust.
Running back is a mild concern. Raymond Sanders has proven to be at least moderately effective, but he’s just so small that he can’t be an every-down back. But Sanders can team with Jonathan George and be plenty good enough to keep the pressure off whoever wins the quarterback race.
The previous staff raved about stocky running back Dyshawn Mobley, but I suspect Mobley is at least a year away from making a significant impact. I hope I’m wrong.
D.J. Warren is a good fullback.
It would be nice if Stoops, Brown and company could land at least one more SEC-quality running back in this winter’s recruiting crop.
I have no reservations about Kentucky’s potential wide receivers. Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, DeMarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree are all potential stars in the making.
If Kentucky can land Timmons, he would be in the mix, too, in addition to getting time as a kick returner.
The Wildcats are in good shape at tight end with names like Tyler Robinson, Ronnie Shields and Jordan Aumiller atop the list, along with junior college recruit Steven Borden.
The line is the question on offense.
Stoops is already raving about left tackle Darrian Miller, a junior-to-be, and sophomore Zach West looks solid at left guard.
Some of the other guys who have to step up include Teven Eatmon-Nared, Max Godby,Jack Gruenschlaeger, Kevin Mitchell and Trevino Woods.
Might be nice if the Wildcats could get some juco help in this spot.
The prospects on the line are off to a good start with the signing of national power defensive end Za’Darius Smith from the juco ranks.
It would help matters a lot if senior tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble can rebound from non-descript junior seasons. Senior Tristian Johnson is another experienced guy at those spots.
And junior Alvin “Bud” Dupree may be called on more at defensive end when he’s not at a linebacker spot.
Stoops and staff need to do a LOT of recruiting in this area in the next 12 months.
Senior Avery Williamson led UK in tackles this past season from a linebacker spot and could be another talent in the Wesley Woodyard/Danny Trevathan kind of mold.
Sophomore Khalid Henderson has solid potential at linebacker, along with sophomore Pancho Thomas and junior Tyler Brause.
Juniors Miles Simpson and Kory Brown, along with sophomore Josh Forrest, have a world of talent that will be utilized either at linebacker or strong safety.
The secondary is also very young with the losses of seniors Martavius Neloms, Cartier Rice and Mikie Benton, but there’s a slew of youngsters back there who played respectably well this past season, given their inexperience.
I’m talking about guys like sophomores J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, Daron Blaylock, Zach Blaylock and Fred Tiller.
On special teams, Landon Foster is already a borderline star at punter, and it would appear that senior Joe Mansour will take over place kicking duties, pending the arrival on campus of someone better.
There is a world of talented guys who Stoops can call on to return kicks, led by Demarco Robinson.
It’s critical that the Wildcats win at least two of their first three games – vs. Western Kentucky on Aug. 31 in Nashville; home to Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 7, and home to Louisville on Sept. 14.
An upset of Louisville would be electrifying, but the key to keeping the current glow shining bright is winning at least the WKU and Miami games.
Then there’s the usual early-mid season murderer’s row: Sept. 28 home to Florida, Oct. 5 at South Carolina and Oct. 12 home to, gulp, Alabama.
The only game that may be hopeless after that, however, is Nov. 23 at Georgia.
The other games are Oct. 26 at Mississippi State, Nov. 2 home to Alabama State, Nov. 9 home to Missouri, Nov. 16 at Vanderbilt and Nov. 30 home to Tennessee.