Last season the Cats offense ranked 5th in the SEC in scoring with 31.2 ppg and 6th in conference games with 26.8 ppg. The Cats rushing attack ranked 7th with 158 yards per game and the passing attack came in 2nd with 269 yards per game. Can the 2011 Cats answer the bell and have better or similar results?
Most people are going to talk about Morgan Newton or La’Rod King when they write about UK’s offense heading into the 2011 season. While those guys are important for UK’s success in 2011, the team’s biggest strength appears to be the “big uglies” up front. The Cats return four starters from last season and have some depth too. This unit will give Newton time to throw, but more importantly establish a serious ground-attack. While most people enjoy watching a long run for a score, I really enjoy watching Larry Warford demolish opposing defenders when he pulls around the end. Look for the Cats ground attack to rank better than 7th in the league this season.
The passing game starts and ends with Morgan Newton. He’s finally all grown up and has been handed the keys to the offense. Newton’s favorite target has been La’Rod King. The two have a solid chemistry and have always seemed to be on the same page. However, outside of a pleasant surprise this season, I expect Brian Adams to become a serious threat. Adams is another big target and one of the fastest receivers on the team. Fans caught a glimpse of what he can do at the spring game. Based on feedback, look for Daryl Collins to make an impact as a true freshman this season. Lastly, before his injury last season, Gene McCaskill was a projected starter. If he is 100% healthy, look for him to have an impact as well. Look for Newton to take shots down-field to keep defenses honest this season. When he does, Brian Adams will likely be the beneficiary.
Who’s going to carry the load for the Cats? Most people are ready to anoint Josh Clemons the next Marcus Lattimore. While I think Clemons can be very good, I don’t like to put that type of pressure on a true freshman. I still believe Raymond Sanders, Jonathan George and Brandon Gainer will receive the most opportunities early. I wouldn’t rule out CoShik Williams as another option. UK will need five guys who can carry the ball to get through the season. However, Josh Clemons is really impressing people heading into fall camp and has the frame to hold up to a grueling schedule. However, he is just a freshman and I expect him to contribute more later in the season than initially. Most people feel Marcus Caffey will redshirt the upcoming season, but Joker Phillips has openly stated that the team could need him this fall too.
Last season the Cats ranked 8th in the SEC in scoring percentage in the red zone at 80%. Randy Sanders’ offense finished the season tied for 6th in red zone attempts with two other teams. Early last season, the Cats struggled with place-kicking. Craig McIntosh took over the job and showed consistency. McIntosh appears poised for a solid season, which should help UK put more points on the board in the red zone. Morgan Newton must pick up where Mike Hartline left off with delivering touchdowns in the red zone. Last season the Cats ranked 2nd in the SEC in this category. Newton can’t afford many mistakes in the red zone this season if the Cats are going to climb the SEC ladder.
Last season the Cats ranked 10th in the SEC in turnover margin at -10. UK ranked last in turnovers at -6 in league play. Football is not a complicated game. Most of the time, you can point to this column at the end of a game and tell who the winner is without looking at the score. As much as it pains me to type this, stop and think about the Cats problems in Oxford and Knoxville last season.
Let’s face it, Morgan Newton is going to throw interceptions. That’s part of the game. Last season, Mike Hartline ranked 4th in the SEC in throwing picks. Most don’t want to admit it, but Hartline was much better than most realize. The Cats need a solid season out of Newton. Hartline managed to throw only nine interceptions last season. The Cats need Newton to be close to the same number.
Where the Cats can drastically improve is by holding on to the football. Last season, UK ranked 10th in the SEC in fumbles with 13. In conference games, UK ranked last with nine fumbles. This is why Steve Pardue told me Raymond Sanders was the No 1 running back coming out of spring. Sanders didn’t cough up the ball one time this spring. If the Cats can hold onto the football this season, it will take pressure off Newton and help their chances tremendously. Turnover margin is the one area the Cats must improve on in 2011. If so, this team could make some noise in the SEC east.