The 2011 Kentucky football season ended in a way that nobody – NOBODY – saw coming, especially before the season began, when your faithful correspondent included this missive within his predictions:
“Is this FINALLY the year? Conventional wisdom says, ‘No. Keep picking Tennessee until somehow, some way, the streak ends.’ But what’s the fun in that?”
And I stayed with my prediction as the season ground on – both at the midway point, and on the Monday prior to the UT game – BEFORE I knew Kentucky would face the Volunteers minus a healthy quarterback. But a wide receiver (who had been converted from quarterback upon his arrival in Lexington) did lead them, and the Wildcats sent Big Blue fans into the streets giddy with glee, forgetting (for the time being) that the season would end there. No bowling this time.
Pundits have predicted more strife ahead. Texas A&M and Missouri join the Southeastern Conference next season and one or both could end up on the Wildcats’ schedule, although a ninth conference game is unlikely for 2012. Mississippi will rotate off as well, and Alabama could replace the Rebels on the UK worksheet.
Non-conference opponents include a season-opening trip to Louisville, which used a win over the Wildcats as a springboard to a season that has seen the young Cardinals land in a bowl game. There are also home games with Kent State, Western Kentucky and Samford. Even if UK sweeps those three, finding another three wins among conference opponents will be as challenging as ever.
For all the heroics provided by Matt Roark, who clawed his way from the bottom of the depth chart (following a dazzling array of dropped passes) all the way to UK football lore, the Kentucky defense was every bit as responsible for the upset of the Vols. And the two most active components of that squad – Winston Guy and Danny Travathan – are gone, along with three starting offensive linemen (Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines and Billy Joe Murphy).
So it’s easy to see why any of us would predict a rougher road ahead. Sure, the Wildcats return a pair of now-experienced quarterbacks. But Morgan Newton will have to bounce back completely from surgery on his throwing shoulder before he can begin to think about improving on the disappointing performance he turned in prior to his injury.
Maxwell Smith at times showed he could move the team, but he suffered the same way Newton did from a lack of big-play receivers. And Patrick Towles will go from state champion and highly-touted recruit to true freshman.
Diminutive CoShik Williams, who scored Kentucky’s only touchdown in the Tennessee victory, returns to challenge for the tailback spot, which will include veteran Raymond Sanders and sophomore-to-be Josh Clemons, who scored Kentucky’s only breakaway touchdown on a 79-yard run.
Where is the seasoned talent?
A few weeks ago, we broke down the 2008 recruiting class, the four-year players who signed that year. Only three played at or near the All-SEC level (Travathan, Guy and Randall Cobb, who left for the NFL prior to this season). Others made contributions, some never did and a half-dozen transferred or saw their careers cut short by injury before they could do much of anything.
A look at the 2009 class shows similar results. Kentucky signed 25 freshmen and three junior college players, along with Donte’ Rumph, at the time a prep school star who didn’t qualify academically.
The junior college players were solid. DeQuin Evans was an All-SEC defensive end now with the Cincinnati Bengals; Chris Matthews was a playmaking wideout who complemented Randall Cobb and often found his way to the end zone. Mark Crawford actually spent three seasons at UK and, when he could stay out of the coaches’ doghouse, provided depth at defensive tackle. He finished up this season; Evans and Matthews were done last year.
Ten of the incoming freshmen from that ’09 class are already gone, including two notables: tailback Donald Russell, who would have competed for the starting job this year but instead transferred to Georgia State; and quarterback Ryan Mossakowski , the five-star prospect who decided to leave following last year’s bowl game when he never played a down, in spite of the way Newton struggled.
Five members of the signing class of ’09 have played and, at times, excelled: Newton (this season notwithstanding), WR LaRod King, DB Martavious Neloms, LB Ridge Wilson and OL Larry Warford, probably the most accomplished of the bunch.
Another seven are still on the roster but haven’t been able to find a way to consistently contribute: WR Brian Adams, TE Jordan Aumiller, TE Anthony Kendrick, TB Jonathan George, LB Tristian Johnson, DE Patrick Ligon, OL Kevin Mitchell and C Sam Simpson.
Adams was nicked up by injury in this, his first real season of competition, and never became the big-play threat the Wildcats needed. Aumiller battled injury as well but, even when he was healthy, never played back to the form he showed last season, when he was named to the All-SEC Freshman team. In fact, Kendrick moved ahead of Aumiller and saw increasingly more action later in the season.
George never could rise above third on the depth chart. Johnson, Ligon and Mitchell have had to wait their respective turns behind quality veterans. Simpson’s season was cut short by a back injury but he should compete for playing time next season.
There’s still time for all of them to make some kind of push. Spring drills will be on top of them soon, and the new depth chart that emerges after the intra-squad game will tell the story. But don’t be surprised if there’s a liberal dose of youth mixed in.
As the season wore on (and it DID wear on a lot of people) it became clear that the best players to watch in 2012 might be among the youngest. Clemons was early in his first season when he went down; Max Smith was a true freshman as well. Fullback D.J. Warren actually had coaches mentioning John Conner when they talked about Warren’s development at a position he’d never played. And at one point, local product Darian Miller actually worked his way into the starting lineup at offensive tackle as injuries to others piled up. True freshmen, every one of them.
There might be even more youngsters to like on the other side of the ball. DBs Ashely Lowery and Eric Dixon combined for 20 tackles, three tackles for loss (TFLs) and two sacks as true freshmen; redshirt sophomore LB Avery Williamson made 49 stops and freshman LB Miles Simpson came on late.
On the defensive front, Alvin “Bud” Dupree made 21 tackles, had 2.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble. Christian Coleman likewise had 21 stops and broke up a couple of passes. Mike Douglas made 16 tackles, including two TFLs and a sack, and was tied for second on the team with three quarterback hurries.
According to recruiting guru Jeff Drummond, 24/7 Sports had UK’s 2010 recruiting class rated 39th in the country; its 2011 class was rated 42nd. As we all know, that probably puts Kentucky in the mid- to bottom third of the SEC. But we also know how athletes formerly rated with three stars have left Lexington and somehow found their way to the NFL. Those are the guys who win you football games at the college level.
It’s vital that the Wildcats find and develop big-play guys on offense to supplement Clemons’ explosive ability. Bookie Cobbins, Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins (also working his way back from injury) – they all need to push King, Adams, Gene McCaskill, and E.J. Fields. Same goes for the new guys who will sign in February.
There are talented players on Kentucky’s roster. They just need to decide they want ownership of this team.
It’s there for the taking.
(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 23-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m. ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)