Not everyone is oozing with excitement when talking about football. Fans of the Big Blue may look at the five-win season from a year ago, see many of the same faces and expect identical results. Not so fast, my friend. Believe it or not, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the direction of Kentucky football. You don’t have to be the biggest Joker Phillips fan to appreciate the positives that the program does have.
— A QUARTERBACK COMPETITION AFTER ALL
It seemed unlikely heading into fall camp, but Joker Phillips and his staff continue to say that Morgan Newton is further along in his re-development than we initially thought. Throw freshman sensation Patrick Towles into the mix and you have a three-way battle for starting quarterback along with current favorite Maxwell Smith.
Smith seems to be a step ahead in the race, having practiced with the first-team throughout the spring. Taking over for Newton after he went down with an injury, Smith earned the fan’s good-will late in the year, throwing for 770 yards and four touchdowns in just four starts. Newton has watched Smith take the limelight for the past nine months. How will that affect him? The coaching staff seems to think it has in a positive and competitive way.
It’s all between the ears for Newton. How will he respond after the rehab from his surgically repaired shoulder? Some players come back better than ever after sitting out awhile and getting a “new life,” but others whither and fade away under the pressure. Will Newton find a new sense of urgency to make it a competition? All indications are he wants that starting job, and is willing to work for it.
As for Towles, it is likely he gets the redshirt. It’s only fair to him to not have the pressure thrown on him as a true freshman coming into the mighty SEC. But he will surely be a factor in camp and make everyone better as he showcases the talent of the future. Plenty of fans called for Bookie Cobbins to break out of his redshirt last season and play quarterback, but Joker Phillips stuck to his guns and saved his three-star athlete for another year.
And I won’t forget Jalen Whitlow either; the quarterback from Prattville, Alabama who Joker Phillips has praised will be a difference-maker. Though it seems likely his services will be better suited at another position, much like Cobbins’ move to wide receiver.
With three players at quarterback who are hungry for a starting role, and a fourth as an unexpected possibility, it will make everyone at the position better. Whether it’s Smith, Newton, Towles, or Whitlow all four are going to be improved come September 2nd when a decision has to be made for good.
— EXPERIENCE AND DEPTH AT SKILL POSITIONS
A season ago, Kentucky was rotating a lot of freshman on the field. A blessing in disguise, perhaps, as those young players have now had a full season of SEC experience under their belt. The jitters should now be well beyond them and the development phase of Joker Phillips’ system begins to show its effects.
But it wasn’t just freshmen; Kentucky had a few old guys too. They lost five starters from the offensive side of the ball and four of them were offensive lineman. The only non-lineman who is not returning is wide receiver and Tennessee-beater Matt Roark, so skill positions for Kentucky remain loaded. Make no mistake, it is going to take a herculean effort to shore up the front line to true SEC caliber, but Matt Smith and Larry Warford are two solid anchors that will help the new guys find their spot.
The wide receiving corps is led by senior La’Rod King, who is one of the better pass catchers in the conference. Young guns Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins are poised to be breakout players for the Cats as they have SEC speed and size built in. Utilizing the experience of Gene McCaskill and E.J. Fields as some added depth, there are plenty of guys to haul in the football whoever may be throwing it. A.J. Legree and DeMarcus Sweat are two freshmen that have the coaching staff buzzing as well.
CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders, Josh Clemons and Jonathan George make up the best position Kentucky has on the entire team. The four running backs each showed flashes of brilliance a season ago, and Joker Phillips’ platoon is poised to have a big year on the ground. Success in the running game hinges greatly on how well the line opens holes, but each player offers a unique skill set, be it speed, agility, brute force or a balanced attack, that may be able to work around a weaker line. Depending on the situation, Phillips will rotate a fresh tailback in to move the chains. As icing on the cake, newcomer Dy’Shawn Mobley is getting talked about a lot, and Joker Phillips makes it sound like he could be a record-holder when his tenure with the Wildcats is finished.
— PLAY CALLING WILL BE MORE EXCITING
The inconsistent passing game for Kentucky was a glaring weakness in an offense that ranked near the bottom in all of division-I football. For reasons already mentioned, the quarterback competition and returning depth and raw talent at wide out give reason to expect a drastic improvement. But the coaches have a change in philosophy that may lead to better results as well.
At SEC Media day last week, Joker Phillips talked about the need for “explosion plays.” Those being the big 30- or 40-yard gains on an air-it-out pass or a breakthrough run. He said it is too much to expect an offense to regularly drive the ball 80 yards on 18 or 20 plays for a touchdown, especially against SEC defenses. Teams with big momentum plays win more ballgames. Kentucky needs more of that, and one way of doing it is stealing a page out of Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense. Take advantage of your play makers on the outside. Cut them loose and throw it out there for King, Robinson or Collins to come down with.
Kentucky quarterbacks averaged 4.8 yards per pass last season, good for dead-last out of all 120 NCAA division-I football teams. A predictable offense is a bad offense. Joker Phillips had a few trick plays up his sleeve last season, and they worked more than once, but it was never a regular wrench in the system. It seems simple: the more variables a defense as to game plan against, the less prepared they are as a whole for your attack on any given Saturday. Last season teams could stack the box against the Cats, regardless of down or situation. It was too simple to keep the ball in front of them. That will surely change this season.
When it is all said and done, wins and losses likely won’t tell the whole story. The Cats could certainly underwhelm, even for the most modest predications. But they could just as easily fly under the radar and shock a few teams en route to an exciting season. More than likely though, the results will fall somewhere in the middle, and fans will undoubtedly call for Joker’s head. But those blindly following their record may be missing the bigger picture.