LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - In the final drill of their Kentucky
football careers, NFL-bound linebacker Wesley Woodyard finally got
to deliver a punishing hit on NFL-bound quarterback Andre Woodson.
Well, OK, technically it wasn't Woodson himself that suffered
the bruising, just a tackle dummy adorned with his red No. 3
practice jersey. That was all the coaches would allow.
"I made him fumble," Woodyard joked.
Perhaps more than anybody else, Woodson and Woodyard epitomize
the giant strides the Wildcats program has made in their four years
in college. As freshmen, Woodyard was considered undersized for a
linebacker and Woodson too sluggish in the pocket, but the two have
developed their skills and helped change the fortunes of Kentucky
football, including back-to-back Music City Bowl victories.
The last time the Wildcats finished two straight seasons with
postseason wins was 1951-52, under legendary coach Bear Bryant.
Now, Woodson and Woodyard are almost certain to play on Sundays
next year, along with potentially several other members of their
senior class - receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson, tight end
Jacob Tamme and running back Rafael Little.
After Kentucky's 35-28 season-ending victory against Bobby
Bowden's Florida State Seminoles Monday in Nashville, Tenn.,
Woodson said it was hard to believe the ride was finally over.
"The only disappointing thing about the entire night is knowing
we'll never suit up again together," Woodson said. "That happens
when a journey comes to an end. When we look back and look at these
times, there will be plenty of memories. This is why we play the
game, for the love of it and for the friendships."
Perhaps the best evidence of what Kentucky has accomplished the
past two years comes with coach Rich Brooks' soaring popularity in
Lexington. Brooks used to begin each season by joking with the
media about whether they were surprised he hadn't been fired. Now,
if he shows up at a basketball game, he gets the loudest ovation.
That's what happens when your team makes history, as the
Wildcats did by knocking off then top-ranked LSU along with
archrival Louisville earlier in the year. Kentucky almost downed
its over major rival, Tennessee, but lost in triple-overtime.
Kentucky found itself ranked among the nation's top 10 teams - a
first in the history of the Bowl Championship Series, so a return
trip to Nashville might have been considered a letdown, although
the players insisted it wasn't.
"It means a lot to the program," Woodyard said. "The seniors
put in a lot of hard work. It means a lot to go out on the last
game of the season on top and to know that for the first game of
next season, we have left the guys with a victory on their hands."
Although his job appears secure again, Brooks realizes the
larger challenge in changing a program riddled by probation when he
inherited it is proving that he can do it with several classes, not
"Turning the program around means we need to be in postseason
next year," Brooks said.
The Wildcats seem to have the talent to do it again, although
there are plenty of questions - particularly on offense. Next year,
the vertical passing game could be a far cry from the one Woodson
featured this year with his school-record 40 TDs.
Two lanky redshirt freshmen, Mike Hartline and Will Fidler, were
behind Woodson on the depth chart this year but saw little action,
and speedster Curtis Pulley, who missed the season with academic
troubles, could give the team a completely new look if he gets the
nod as next year's starter.
The Wildcats will lose three of their top four receiving threats
- Burton, Johnson and Tamme - but return playmaker Dicky Lyons Jr.
and DeMoreo Ford, an experienced backup. Little is gone, but the
running game retains tremendous depth with Tony Dixon, Alfonso
Smith and freshman burner Derrick Locke.
Defensively, Woodyard and end Dominic Lewis are among the only
major losses from a unit that was dramatically improved over the
nation's second-to-last defense from 2006. Micah Johnson appears
ready to fill Woodyard's shoes as a roving linebacker, Trevard
Lindley is among the Southeastern Conference's best defensive backs
and Jeremy Jarmon will lead the defensive line.
Tamme says he expects the success to continue when he's gone
because the turnaround is about mindset, not personnel.
"Guys, no matter what the situation, no matter what the score,
no matter what the down, believe we're going to win the game,"
Tamme said. "Three or four or five years ago, when the program is
coming off probation, it's tough for that to happen and for
everybody in the bottom of their soul to believe we can win the
game against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida State. We do
now and we showed it. It's going to continue."
One of the biggest potential defections could be offensive
coordinator Joker Phillips, who figures to be on the short list for
several head coaching positions. Phillips wouldn't confirm this
week whether he expects to stay or go, but he acknowledged it will
be difficult to watch such a closeknit group break up.
"It'll be tough seeing these guys go," Phillips said. "So
many of them have been a huge part of the success we've had here.
So many of them bought into the dream that we sold them on when we
went into their living room."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)