Some time during the 2008 football season, Rich Brooks was standing before the media, talking about his team which, following the previous year, had said goodbye to Andre’ Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Rafael Little and a number of other players who had made Kentucky one of the more formidable offensive powers in the country.
His ’08 squad, predictably, was struggling on offense but actually was showing signs of capability on defense, thanks to the likes of Braxton Kelley, Micah Johnson and Trevard Lindley.
A reporter attending the news conference asked Brooks to comment on the fact that it seemed as though UK couldn’t quite put together a season where a potent offense complemented a talented defense.
With a rueful smile, Brooks said, “Don’t you think I’ve thought about that?”
Decades from now, when football archaeologists sift through the UK football statistics, trying to piece together what happened in 2012, they’ll see the quarterback numbers and quickly deduce that the best one must have been injured early in the season. Of course, they’ll be right.
Maxwell Smith opened the season in a blaze of completions, firing left, right and over the middle in the Wildcats’ newly-developed, no huddle/quick pass style of offense. Joker Phillips and Randy Sanders realized that Smith was the right man for the plan after watching him take part in just five practices two years ago, during the Wildcats’ preparation for their 2010 bowl appearance.
Before he went down with an injury on the second play of the South Carolina game, Smith was getting it done. He’d already thrown for 966 yards, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns.
Three of Smith’s four interceptions came in the first half of the loss to Western Kentucky, which saw the sophomore march the Wildcats down the field in the final 2:14 of regulation to tie the game, completing four passes to three different freshmen, including DeMarcus Sweat, who snagged the game-tying touchdown pass with 23 seconds left.
After his injury, the offense bogged down but it’s safe to say, had Smith remained healthy, this would have been yet another season with a major imbalance in the Kentucky offense and defense. And it’s been this way since Hal Mumme arrived.
Under Mumme, offense was always fun to watch. Defense was anywhere from ineffective to nightmarish, with the exception of 1999. In that one season, which ended in an unexpected trip to the Music City Bowl, the Wildcats played enough defense to supplement an offense that featured quarterback Dusty Bonner and tight end James Whalen, who set an NCAA record that season for catches by a tight end.
Mumme’s greatest problem was his faith in defensive coordinator Mike Major, who was so inept that his players eventually mutinied. According to several ex-Wildcats, late in one particular season, after they had met with Major to discuss game plans, they held meetings of their own to discuss alternative strategy and defensive calls.
In fact, one of the best halves that Major ever “called” came during a road game that saw the Kentucky defense pound its opponent into submission in the first two quarters. At halftime, Major confronted his players and demanded to know why they weren’t running the defensive plays he’d been calling.
The players insisted they had. Eventually, they all realized that the sheets from which Major was signaling plays did not correspond to the wristbands the players were wearing. They had been dominating defensively quite by accident.
By the time the third quarter began, they all were, literally, on the same page. The players ran the schemes Major signaled, and the Cats lost in a blowout.
Mumme eventually accepted Major’s resignation during the 2000 season and hired John Goodner as his new DC, but he never got a chance to work with him. Mumme was fired at the end of the year and Goodner went on to work for interim head coach Guy Morriss.
Under Goodner, the Wildcats showed some life on defense but always seemed to be undermanned. The same could be said for the first few teams that followed under Brooks. The offense might prosper, but the defense couldn’t stop anybody.
The Wildcats finally developed some seasoned talent on the defensive side of the ball, right around the time the offense began to sputter.
It’s been 12 years since Mumme left, and the imbalance remains. Each of the three head coaches since then has tried to recruit more balance to the roster, but, for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked.
In 2006, Brooks’ offense began to show signs of life, with Woodson throwing to his talented stable of receivers, or handing off to Little, and Tony Dixon. But the Kentucky defense, despite the presence of Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley and Marcus McClinton, surrendered more than 450 yards and 28 points per game. They did pick off 14 passes and recover 18 fumbles, which helped them reach the Music City Bowl.
The next season was better, but only slightly. The Cats produced the best offense in school history, averaging 36.5 points per game and 443 yards per contest. The defense gave up 29 per start, but opposing teams had more chances to score because of the speed with which Kentucky scored. That year also was the season Jeremy Jarmon made his presence known in the SEC, with 13.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
In ’08, with Woodson and Co. gone, the offense plummeted, scoring just 22 points per game - but the defense gave up only 21.5 per contest. Ventrell Jenkins, Myron Pryor, Corey Peters and Ricky Lumpkin joined Jarmon on the defensive front - the last time Kentucky had five future pro players in its D-line rotation. A young linebacker named Micah Johnson registered 13 tackles for loss, for a team that went on to win the Liberty Bowl – a victory cinched when the Cats forced two late turnovers, including a scoop and score by Jenkins.
The 2009 defense was the first to feature a pair of ball hawks named Winston Guy and Danny Travathan, who joined Peters and Johnson in helping to limit opponents to 22.7 points per game. Lumpkin played an even greater role, joined by junior college transfer defensive end DeQuin Evans, a future Cincinnati Bengal. That unit was the last to pitch a shutout, a 42-0 whitewash of Miami (O.) in the season opener.
The offense that year was good for 26 per contest, but likely would have scored more were it not for the knee injury suffered by quarterback Mike Hartline at South Carolina, five games into the season.
The next year, 2010, was the first for new head coach Joker Phillips, who installed Rick Minter as his defensive coordinator. Minter brought the 3-4 defense, which asks the guys up front to stay in their gaps and tie up blockers. Guy, Travathan, Ronnie Sneed and Michael Bailey – all second-level players – were UK’s top tacklers. The top lineman in tackles was Taylor Wyndham, with just 27.
UK surrendered almost the same amount of yards as the year before, but five more points per game (28). The offense, with Randall Cobb making one heroic play after another, scored enough to help the Cats win six, including an upset of Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina squad en route to the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Then came 2011. Given the stats, it’s amazing that Kentucky managed to win five games. UK struggled on defense, with players still grasping at the 3-4 concept. Yet, in all five victories, the Wildcats gave up two touchdowns or less – an average of 10 ppg. In their seven losses, their opponents averaged 32.
The offense was a nightmare. Morgan Newton struggled as receivers dropped footballs at an alarming pace. Then Smith took over when Newton went down, before succumbing to injury himself. Wideout Matt Roark played quarterback in the season finale, the Wildcats scoring only a field goal and a touchdown – but it was enough, in the historic 10-7 upset of Tennessee. It clearly was the finest hour for the Kentucky defense that season.
Injuries have decimated this year’s UK team, forcing coordinators on both sides of the football to play true freshmen, some of them well before schedule. But on both sides of the ball, the newbies are making plays – just not enough to register victories and take their head coach off the hot seat.
If there’s a blessing in any of this, it may be that the Wildcat offense and defense could emerge in synch – with a defense that can complement an offense, and vice versa.
Trouble is, we likely won’t know about that until next year.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and Radio network, and can be heard each Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on The Big Blue Insider, on 630 WLAP-AM.)