Help us ghost Ed.
As a kid, long before the annual Duncan Cavanah Kentucky Football position-by-position preview became a highly-anticipated KSR rite of summer, I used to obsessively scour college football magazines in order to predict each SEC team’s fall football fortunes. (I was a really cool kid.) In those days, I valued the number of starters a team returned above almost every other factor as an indicator of success. In other words, a Gerry DiNardo coached Vanderbilt squad, fresh off a 2-9 campaign, that returned 18 starters would be more likely to earn my highly-valued seal of approval than would a reigning conference champion Florida squad that returned only 12. Shockingly, it turns out my adolescent brain failed to analyse the data very accurately. I made the common mistake of overvaluing an experienced roster. As it turns out, much more important to success in football, or any athletic endeavor for that matter, is the existence of players, or sometimes even one player, that can consistently make difference-making plays. Of all the various obstacles facing the current Kentucky roster, the absence of such a game-changing player is the single-most glaring, and something that must be addressed before the Cats can truly compete.
The topic of what one star player can do for an otherwise middling football team occurred to me as I watched the Kentucky – Vandy game on Saturday. To my admittedly untrained eye, I saw two football teams that appeared to be on relatively similar levels. I understand, of course, that Vanderbilt, poised for its third straight bowl appearance, is the better team. I simply mean that athletically, Vandy looks a lot more like Kentucky than they do Alabama. And for the most part, the game played out as though the talent level was fairly equivalent, with the noted exception of one player. Kentucky absolutely could not stop Commodore receiver Jordan Matthews. Matthews’ 172 total yards accounted for over 55% of Vandy’s yardage against the Cats. It seemed that whenever Vanderbilt needed a play, Matthews was able to deliver it for them. Unfortunately, the Cats do not currently have a player of similar ilk on the roster.
Not since the days of Randall Cobb has Kentucky fielded a player who single-handedly elevates the team through his play. This is particularly the case offensively, where the Cats have a serious lack of explosive offensive weapons. Kentucky’s current roster has not one player in the top 15 in the SEC in rushing, receiving, all purpose yards or scoring. The lack of a player capable of making dynamic plays on his own creates enormous challenges for offenses. Offensive play-callers are forced to micromanage the ball a few yards at a time down the field for scores rather than simply relying on playmakers to make something happen. This is akin to a basketball coach having to use his offense to set up every scoring opportunity as opposed to a team who has players who can make shots on their own outside the offense. There is far less pressure to execute perfectly when players can thrive even when the play does not go as planned. Think of Johnny Manziel or Cam Newton as recent examples. Neal Brown and the rest of Kentucky’s coaches do not have this luxury.
With the season winding down, it seems unlikely that the lack of dynamic play-making will be remedied this season. So who will be the player to inject life into Kentucky’s offense going forward? The good news is that there appear to be several possibilities, both on the current roster and coming soon. Will it be Javess Blue? Blue has enjoyed a solid debut season at Kentucky, and currently leads the Cats in receiving with 35 catches for 451 yards and two touchdowns. Blue might be a good bet historically as previous Kentucky receivers who have transferred from junior college tend to make big leaps in production between their first and second years. Stevie Johnson recorded 12 catches in his first season in Lexington before “getting loose” for 61 catches and 13 touchdowns in his final year. Aaron Boone and Chris Bernard also made major strides in year two. Another possibility from the current roster would be freshman wide receiver Ryan Timmons. Timmons has shown flashes of being an explosive and versatile player during his freshman year despite being slowed by injury. Running back Jojo Kemp, who has averaged over 5 yards per carry as a freshman, is another possibility among players on the current roster.
Though counting on freshmen to immediately produce dynamic plays is an uncertain proposition, it is entirely possible that the star player Kentucky needs to move the offense forward may be found in Kentucky’s historic 2014 recruiting class. By the time fall drills roll around, Kentucky’s offense will be adding three 4 star running backs and two 4 star wide receivers to the depth chart. In addition, 4 star and Elite Eleven quarterback Drew Barker will have the opportunity to compete for the starting job. While Kentucky’s most talented players will be very young, I think it is almost certain that there will be one or more true difference-making players on the Kentucky roster in 2014. If so, Kentucky will be elevated far more than if they simply returned 22 anonymous starters.
Use the comments section to vote on who you believe Kentucky’s next game -changer is, whether a current player or an incoming recruit.