A note to suffering Big Blue football fans – When in doubt, turn to The Marx Brothers.
As the Kentucky coaching staff scrambles to salvage the season, it’s not unreasonable to wonder about the future. The last two UK recruiting classes have been highly ranked, and we’ve known for decades that there is no substitute for a talented roster.
In fact, we learned that by observing one of the greatest football movies of all time: “Horse Feathers,” released in 1932, starring the Four Marx Brothers. Yes, I said “four.”
Zeppo, who not long after stopped performing with the group, played Frank Wagstaff, a student at Huxley College. Groucho played his father, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the school’s new president. As the movie begins, Professor Wagstaff is not happy about the fact that his son has been seen in the company of an older woman. “I’d horse whip you, if I had a horse,” Wagstaff (Groucho) says.
Frank quickly moves the conversation to the school’s struggling football team.
Frank: “You can’t have a good football team unless you have good football players.”
Wagstaff: “My boy, I think you’ve got something there. And I’ll wait outside until you clean it up.”
Frank (Zeppo) had merely stated the obvious, and the enlightened Wagstaff immediately headed off to a speakeasy to purchase the services of two of the nation’s best college players. The fact that he mistakenly hires an ice delivery man named Baravelli (Chico) and a dog-catcher named Pinky (Harpo) nearly ruins their chances to win the Big Game with Darwin College. But it also underscored one major tenet of recruiting: When it comes to signing players, you can’t have too many fumbles.
Kentucky’s struggle this season began in the opening minutes of the Western Kentucky game, when the offense began to sputter (and it’s been sputtering ever since). It built to a crescendo two Saturdays ago, as the Wildcats suffered a 54-3 pounding in Columbia, and now the debate rages in every corner of the Big Blue Nation: What is wrong with this football team? Can it be fixed this season? And who’s to blame?
I’m usually a proponent of the, “It ain’t the plays, it’s the players” gospel and I’m not ready to give up on that, but the UK coaching staff must bear its share of the responsibility as well – the current staff, as well as the past. Three assistants, as well as head coach Joker Phillips, were part of both.
The 2008 UK football media guide includes biographies of 20 newcomers. The four-year players from that group are seniors now; some have redshirted and are listed as juniors, and the ranks have grown with the presence of junior-college transfers and walk-ons.
But a look at the initial group of signees shows six players who made early exits without playing significant, if any, minutes; five who still are looking for any appreciable playing time; six who have made solid contributions and three who could play for virtually any team in the SEC, if not the country. Of course, one is already playing in the NFL.
Again, junior-college transfers and walk-ons have swelled the ranks of players who will finish their eligibility this year, not to mention fifth-year seniors who were signed in 2007, including linebacker Ronnie Sneed and punter Ryan Tydlacka. Seniors Anthony Mosley (CB) and Nick Melillo (TE) both walked on and at times have been starters. But of the 20 potential four-year players introduced in 2008, only 13 remain. Believe it or not, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, according to the head coach.
“If you get 16 to 18 of them (into their senior seasons), that’s a large number to stay together for four years,” Phillips said. “Academics gets some; competition gets some. We’ve lost some kids recently because of competition . And you miss on some, also. All those things factor in.”
Following is a look at the group that arrived in ’08, since supplemented with JUCO transfers and walk-ons:
STARS OF ’08 SIGNING CLASS
Randall Cobb II – One of the most dynamic players in the history of the program; left a season early as a 2nd-round draft pick of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Danny Trevathan – First team All-SEC (and All-America, according to at least one service) last season; led the conference in tackles. On course to challenge for the league lead again.
Winston Guy, Jr. – Played erratically at safety his first three seasons; moved back to his natural linebacker position this year and has excelled at times, becoming one of the top tacklers in the SEC.
Chandler Burden – Began his career as a defensive tackle (highlighted by five tackles vs. Alabama his sophomore year) before moving to offensive tackle as a junior, where he’s done a credible job. One of the physically strongest players on the team.
Matt Roark – A QB in high school, Roark was recruited as a wide receiver. He has personified the problems the Wildcat WRs have had dropping passes this year, but has been especially effective as a gunner on special teams. He’s one of the fiercest, and most fearless, hitters on the squad.
Donte Rumph – As a high-schooler, first-team all-stater in South Carolina; had to spend two seasons in prep school before joining the Wildcats. Has shown signs of becoming a top-notch SEC defensive lineman.
Matt Smith – A defensive lineman in high school, Smith made the switch to the offensive side of the ball as a redshirt freshman and won the starting center position last year. Battled injuries earlier this season.
Collins Ukwu – Originally committed to Middle Tennessee State, was a last-second get for UK. After sitting out a redshirt season, played in all 13 games as a freshman and won the starting job at DE as a sophomore. Has missed half of this season so far with an injury.
Taylor Wyndham – Undersized but with a great motor, Wyndham at first was known simply as The Guy Who Knocked Out Tim Tebow, but eventually was named second-team Freshman All America by Phil Steele’s College Football and had a solid sophomore season. He has contributed this year as an undersized inside lineman in the new 3-4 defense.
Aaron Boyd – The top recruit in Kentucky his senior season at Henry Clay High School, Boyd has been a disappointment. After playing in 11 games as a freshman (starting one), he sat out his second season. He played in only four games as a redshirt sophomore and this year, caught the only pass thrown his way (in the loss to Louisville) but still hasn’t been able to earn more playing time.
E.J. Fields – One of the top high school players in the Commonwealth his senior year at Frankfort, Fields was an all-stater who played both quarterback and cornerback. After sitting his freshman season as a redshirt, he battled a foot injury the following year and missed every game. As a sophomore, he played well on special teams. Fields had a breakout performance this year in the Louisville game, catching seven passes, including two for touchdowns – but has contributed little (except for a couple of drops) since, in part because of a nagging injury (again).
Gene McCaskill – A first-team all-stater as a senior in South Carolina, McCaskill had a breakout effort at wideout in the Liberty Bowl victory in ’09, but has been plagued by injuries ever since.
Cartier Rice – Another first-team all-stater from South Carolina, where he was heralded for his ability as a cover corner, Rice has never played consistently well enough at UK to hang on to a starting job. Used primarily as a nickel back, he broke up a last-second pass in the end zone versus USC that eventually was picked off, sealing the victory.
Trevino Woods – Didn’t play HS football in Athens, Georgia, until his junior season. UK liked his sized (6-5, 265 lbs.). A career backup so far, he’s played primarily on the extra point and field goal units.
GONE TOO SOON
Dave Ulinski – Considered a great “get” out of Louisville’s DuPont Manual, Ulinski was co-winner of the Paul Hornung Award as the best player in Kentucky his senior season. He saw some playing time early in his UK career, mostly on special teams, but had to give up football after suffering a series of concussions.
Eric Adeyemi – A wide receiver, he was unable to climb the depth chart and transferred to Kent State, where he plays WR and returns kicks.
Osaze Idumwonyi – A defensive lineman, he transferred to Northwestern State.
William Johnson – At one time considered a promising linebacker, Johnson transferred to Tennessee Tech, where he plays safety.
DeAunte Mason – A QB/Athlete, Mason transferred to Alabama A&M.
Sean Stackhouse – A tight end, Stackhouse transferred to Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The following recruiting class (’09), Brooks’ last as UK head coach, included 27 signees (28 if you count Rumph, who went back to prep school again). There were contributors, including JUCO transfers DeQuin Evans, Chris Matthews and Mark Crawford (who didn’t become eligible until this season). Offensive lineman Larry Warford is one of the tops in the SEC, and linebacker Ridge Wilson has flourished in the 3-4. Tight end Jordan Aumiller made big plays last season, but has battled injuries this year. And that class also included four-star quarterback Morgan Newton, as well as his go-to receiver, La’Rod King. Two others, WR Brian Adams and TB Jonathan George, are still competing for minutes.
Ten already are gone, including four-star quarterback Ryan Mossakowski and tailback Donald Russell, who proved he had skills but grew tired of waiting for more playing time.
Every head coach in America deals with the same recruiting issues: Finding, evaluating and signing talent, with a minimum of mistakes. Then you go play, and see where attrition takes you. But it’s vital, before academics and competition even begin to winnow your roster, that you stock your team with players who will help, in one way or another – no matter how many stars a recruiting service assigns them.
Otherwise, if your season starts to go south, you might not have enough seasoned veterans to help turn things around.
Of course, sometimes, you just get lucky. Professor Wagstaff might have signed the wrong players at that speakeasy, but Darwin College got its victory. The four brothers (yes, the school’s president actually played) crossed the goal line in a garbage can on wheels, drawn by two white horses. And because they carried four different footballs, they were awarded four touchdowns, winning 31-12.
It’s doubtful the Southeastern Conference would allow it. Not today. Even SEC referees would notice something like that.
“Upon further review…”
(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.)