The college football season is finally here. Texas A&M and South Carolina are kicking off the season in style, on the brand-new SEC Network as we speak. The two schools are moving on without the services of Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney. It’s yet to be determined how difficult it will be for each school to replace its big star, but this has me thinking … in recent history, which Kentucky football and basketball stars have been most difficult to replace after their departures?
We’ll consider “recent history” to mean any player since the start of the Rich Brooks and Tubby Smith eras. This is not a list of the best players Kentucky has had during this period, although they are probably all in the conversation. It’s a list of players who have been the most difficult to replace. Much of the list has to do with the talent, or lack thereof, that followed each star.
Let’s begin, in chronological order:
The Hefty Lefty was the third of a trio of good QBs at Kentucky. Tim Couch passed down the torch to Dusty Bonner for a solid 1999 campaign, but the job was Lorenzen’s from 2000-2003. Lorenzen threw for 2,221 yards and 16 TDs with eight INTs in 2003, the first year of the Rich Brooks’ era. He was primarily replaced by Shane Boyd, who totaled only 1,328 passing yards with seven TDs and nine INTs in 2004. Lorenzen’s loss could also be felt in the 2005 season as Andre Woodson took time to develop into the great QB that he would eventually become in 2006 and 2007.
Hayes was a key player in the best four-year run of the Tubby Smith era. When Tayshaun Prince’s eligibility expired after Hayes’ freshman year, most expected UK to regress in 2003. Instead, the Cats went 32-4, ran the table in the SEC and earned a No. 1 overall seed. With Keith Bogans gone the following season, 2004 was also thought to be a rebuilding year. Wrong again. Although the Cats were upset by UAB in the second round, Kentucky went 27-5, earned a No. 1 seed and was ranked No. 2 in the final regular season AP poll. The one constant key to the success of Kentucky through these years was Chuck Hayes. As a senior, he averaged 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists, along with 10.9 points per game in 2005. The next two seasons without Hayes, Bobby Perry led Kentucky’s forwards with just 3.9 and 3.5 rebounds per game. The Cats had to rely on their point guard, Rajon Rondo, for a team-leading 6.1 rebounds per game in 2006. That was the first of four straight double-digit loss seasons.
Kentucky easily replaced and improved in almost every area in John Calipari’s first season. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and company joined an NIT team and instantly turned it into a Final Four contender. The one key part they lost from 2009, however, ended up being the one thing they needed most in the NCAA Tournament. Jodie Meeks’ outside shooting wasn’t replaced and it may have been the one thing that stopped the Cats from winning it all in 2010. Meeks made 117 three-point shots at a percentage of .406 in 2009. In 2010, the Cats’ two best long-range threats combined for less made threes than Meeks made alone the year before. Darnell Dodson made 50 threes at a percentage of .347 and Eric Bledsoe made 49 (.383). And in that final game against West Virginia, those two combined to make 2-of-14 and the team made just 4-of-32 from long range.
Yes, Mike Hartline. Hartline wasn’t as beloved as the other players on this list and was often unfairly criticized, but it’s been four years and Kentucky has yet to replace his production or go to another bowl game. He had one of the strongest seasons in the SEC as a senior in 2010. Hartline threw for 3,178 yards, 23 TDs and 9 INTs. He led the SEC with 268 pass completions and finished second in passing yards. In 2011, the year after he graduated, Maxwell Smith led the team with just 819 passing yards.
In addition to losing Mike Hartline, Kentucky lost one of the greatest all-around players in its history in 2010. Randall Cobb did everything in his three years in Lexington. He spent time at QB while Hartline was developing or injured, made a huge difference in special teams, and developed into a 1,000-yard receiver as a junior. He totaled 1,441 yards from scrimmage that season. No player played a bigger part in helping Kentucky reach five consecutive bowl games than Cobb, who kept the streak going for three more years after Andre Woodson, Stevie Johnson, Jacob Tamme, Wesley Woodyard and company had departed after the 2007 season. There hasn’t been another player step into his shoes, but to be fair, there likely never will be a player like him again.
Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy
The bowl streak was snapped in their senior year, but they also helped end the losing streak to Tennessee in their final game. These two kept Kentucky competitive with a five-win season in 2011, despite an offense that was struggling to adjust to the losses of Randall Cobb and Mike Hartline. The two combined for 124 solo tackles and 263 total tackles. The duo of Avery Williamson and a young Bud Dupree fell short of those numbers with 226 total tackles between them in 2012. In the win-loss column, Trevathan and Guy’s absence showed as the Cats went from five wins to two and Joker Phillips was on his way out.
The 2012 National Championship team
It wouldn’t be fair to name just one or two players from the 2012 National Championship team that were toughest to replace. The reality is Kentucky lost its entire team and completely started over again in 2013. Anthony Davis’ freakish skill set couldn’t be replaced even by a healthy Nerlens Noel. Darius Miller’s veteran presence was gone. MKG’s work ethic was nowhere to be found. Doron Lamb’s deadly shooting was missed. Terrence Jones at his best was a beast. And we would have loved another year of Marquis Teague at point guard. All six players lost that season are worthy of this list and none of them were able to be replaced in a 2013 season that ended sadly and bizarrely in Moon Township, PA.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments section below.