Cats end season, Brooks decision pending

Rich Brooks came to Kentucky seven years
ago pledging to make the Wildcats competitive in the Southeastern
Perhaps it's a sign of just how far the program has climbed
during his tenure that seven wins and a fourth straight bowl
appearance aren't quite enough anymore.
Talking to the media following a 21-13 loss to Clemson in the
Music City Bowl on Sunday night, the 68-year-old hardly seemed
pleased with Kentucky's 7-6 season that included road wins at
Auburn and Georgia and a third straight triumph over rival
Instead, Brooks talked about missed opportunities and his own
impending departure. After 46 seasons on the sidelines, Brooks says
he's "80 percent" sure he'll step down and allow
head-coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips to assume control.
"I think it may be time for a change and time for Joker to take
it over," Brooks said. "I'm not totally sure, but I just feel
like maybe it's time."
Brooks' immediate future isn't the only question mark
surrounding the Wildcats following a good season that narrowly
missed becoming a great one.
Despite an injury to quarterback Mike Hartline in October that
pressed freshman Morgan Newton into action, Kentucky came
tantalizingly close to putting together one of the best seasons in
school history.
Close losses to South Carolina, Mississippi State and Tennessee
- games in which the Wildcats had an opportunity to win and lost by
a combined 15 points - prevented Kentucky from finishing second
behind Florida in the SEC East.
Reaching the upper echelon of arguably the toughest division in
the nation doesn't happen very often at Kentucky, and Brooks is
only too aware of how an extra win or two could have changed the
team's fortunes.
In a way, the bowl loss to the Tigers proved to be a microcosm
of Kentucky's season. The Wildcats found a way to keep Clemson star
running back C.J. Spiller in relative check but failed to provide
the big plays necessary to win a fourth straight bowl game for the
first time.
"It's an extremely disappointing loss," Brooks said. "I
thought we had quite a few chances where we crossed midfield and we
couldn't finish the drives."
It's a refrain Brooks repeated in one form or another following
his team's six losses. Kentucky failed to produce consistently in
the passing game. Newton averaged just 78.4 yards passing per game
and struggled to get the ball downfield.
Newton's somewhat erratic play will lead to an open quarterback
competition in the spring, Phillips said. Hartline and freshman
Ryan Mossakowski will battle for the right to be the starter when
the Wildcats open the 2010 season at Louisville on Labor Day
Yet Kentucky was able to survive behind the dazzling play of
do-everything sophomore Randall Cobb, who started the season
working exclusively at wide receiver before thriving while running
the offense out of the Wildcat formation.
Cobb accounted for 1,762 all-purpose yards and 15 total
touchdowns while becoming one of the most dynamic players in the
Running back Derrick Locke did his best to take some of the
pressure off Cobb, rushing for a team-high 908 yards while catching
31 passes out of the backfield. The speedy junior announced Monday
he'll return for his senior season.
Just who will be opening the holes for the Wildcats, however,
remains in question. Kentucky loses several starters off the
offensive line, including standouts Zipp Duncan and Christian
The defense will be equally hard hit. Defensive tackle Corey
Peters, linebacker Micah Johnson and cornerback Trevard Lindley
will all likely be playing in NFL training camps next summer.
Though there is talent returning in rising stars like defensive end
Taylor Wyndham, the Wildcats will find it difficult to replace the
most successful senior class in generations.
Replacing Brooks won't be easy either. He breathed life into a
program that was reeling from NCAA sanctions when he took the job,
and now the Wildcats are perennial bowl contenders.
"Five years ago, he sold us on a dream of coming here and
working hard and turning this program around," offensive lineman
Zipp Duncan said.
Phillips knows his job will be to keep the momentum going
whenever Brooks decides to retire.
"No matter what decision he makes, there are a whole lot of
positives moving forward for us," Phillips said.