It took some time but Kentucky finally seems to be getting on the right track after going 8-5 for the second consecutive season under head coach Rich Brooks. The team began the season winning 5 straight before losing to South Carolina in a game that really wasn't even close. Looking down the barrel of a gun the Cats then had to face the top-ranked team in the country in LSU. Playing in Lexington the Cats were able to defeat the Bayou Bengals in a 43-37 thriller. Kentucky star quarterback Andre Woodson led the way with a very business-like 250 yards passing, 3 touchdowns and a couple of interceptions.
The win over LSU was the launching pad for Kentucky's rise to mediocrity in 2007. What could have potentially been the game to make UK's season really only ended up staving off disaster as the team lost four of their final 7 contests. While the Cats looked very pedestrian in the second half of the season it is fair to note that the losses came to Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi State. The State game was probably the only one in which Kentucky was a clear favorite, though the Tennessee game could have gone either way.
Now Brooks and staff must deal with life after Andre Woodson who was drafted in the 6th round by the New York Giants. Also gone is the team's leading rusher in Rafael Little, and top receiver Keenan Burton.
So what does this mean for the Kentucky Wildcats? Rebuilding mode of course.
"Not so fast my friend"!
While things look bad on paper for the Cats, football isn't won on paper, except in recruiting. Recruiting is one of the reasons for the optimistic outlook of Kentucky fans and coaches this year, as Brooks' staff has brought in one of the best classes the university has ever had. The departure of Little hurts, but Brooks has stated publicly that he expects the running game to be a strength for this year's squad. Taking into consideration that quarterbacks Curtis Pulley and Mike Hartline both performed exceptionally well in the spring then maybe the loss of Woodson isn't as bad as it might have been. Last but not least, the defense is actually supposed to be serviceable for a change.
While it's always tough to play the "what if" game this is still preseason so we get a pass. Having said that, IF the ground game does in fact end up being a point of strength, IF the quarterback situation is stable, IF the incoming class can contribute positively, and IF the defense is improved, then Kentucky has a reason to be hopeful for 2008.
The first question that needs to be answered is who takes over for Andre Woodson? The top two choices to replace the departed Woodson are senior Curtis Pulley and sophomore Mike Hartline. Maybe the best news here is that both players are experienced and performed well during the spring. This gives the staff a nice problem to have.
Pulley ended the spring at the top of the depth chart and had a nice Blue/White game leading his white team to a win late in the contest. He finished 12 of 26 for 134 yards and a touchdown. While he is the upperclassmen there is no guarantee that he will start the season as the quarterback. In fact, Kentucky coaches may attempt to use the senior quarterback in more of a "slash" role to utilize his athletic abilities. In 2005 Pulley rushed for 149 yards on 49 attempts, making him the team's 3rd-leading ground gainer. In 2006 (again as a backup quarterback) Pulley hauled in 21 receptions and a score from the wideout position. So while the staff will likely use Pulley at quarterback, the talented senior has the ability to contribute in a number of different areas.
Pulley's counterpart, Mike Hartline is only a sophomore heading into this season, but he was the backup quarterback in 2007. He put up only minimal numbers, completing 4 of only 6 attempts, but also had a good spring. In the Blue/White game the young quarterback completed 11 of 28 attempts for 124 and a score.
Regardless of who wins the job outright, the position looks to be in capable hands heading into the fall season.
The situation at running back is in good shape as the Wildcats return a trio of solid backs in senior Tony Dixon, junior Alfonso Smith and sophomore Derrick Locke.
Dixon (5-9, 203 from Jasper, Alabama) injured his knee during the spring so really didn't see a lot of action, but he should be fine entering the 2008 season, given that the injury did not require surgery. He performed well in 2007 carrying the ball 72 times for over 400 yards and 4 scores.
Alfonso Smith (6-1, 200) is the biggest of the running backs and might end up being the one that gets the most action in 2008. Coach Rich Brooks has made no secret that he loves Smith's upside. In the team's spring game he tallied close to 180 yards rushing on 20 carries. In limited action last season Smith still managed to gain 149 yards on only 21 carries.
Derrick Locke finished 2007 as the team's second-leading rusher gaining 521 yards on 94 carries while scoring 5 touchdowns. During the spring game Locke caught one pass for 18 yards and rushed for 55 more on 12 carries.
The corps hardest hit by defection is the receiving corps. With Kentucky losing Steve Johnson, Keenan Burton, and tight end Jacob Tamme we're talking about the loss of 183 receptions and 28 touchdowns. the team's top returning wideout is senior Dicky Lyons who hauled in 56 passes last year, tying him with Tamme for 3rd on the team. Dickey found out during the spring game just how heavily the Wildcats will be counting on him to carry the receiving corps in 2008. He was easily the most productive receiver on the day nabbing 10 passes for 148 yards and 2 scores.
The most likely source of receiving help for Lyons will be junior DeMoreo Ford, and sophomores Kyrus Lanxter and Terrence Jones. At least one news source is indicating that defensive back E.J. Adams will be making the move to offense to provide support to the receiving corps.
The offensive line is going to have to perform better than it did last season, especially in pass protection. Senior left tackle Garry Williams (6-3, 300), junior guard Zipp Duncan (6-5, 285), as well as junior right tackle Justin Jeffries(6-6, 310) return to head up the unit. Williams is the best and most experienced member of the offensive line and was named second-team All-Conference last season, and enters this season on the Outland Trophy watch list.
Though not the norm, the Kentucky defense might actually be a strength this season. The staff has made several position changes in an attempt to shore up the unit as a whole. One key to success in 2008 will be the Kentucky front four's ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks; something they were not able to do much of last year.
Here are some final numbers from 2007.
TOTAL DEFENSE 67th
PASS DEFENSE 24th
RUSH DEFENSE 94th
SCORING DEFENSE 80th
If Kentucky's new and improved defense can get some of those numbers down they have a shot at some success in 2008. If not, the loss of all that offensive production from last year, combined with soft defensive play, might prove to be a hurdle that the team cannot overcome.
If the numbers are any indication then the secondary should be one of the best units on defense. The unit will be led by junior cornerback Trevard Lindley (6-0, 178) who enters the season on the Bronco Nagurski watch list, as well as being a probably all-conference selection by the end of the season. Lindley had an impressive sophomore season racking up 66 tackles and a team-leading 3 interceptions.
Joining Lindley in the defensive backfield will be converted quarterback Matt Lentz, who played safety in the spring. Lentz will be doing a good deal of learning on the fly but had a nice spring, highlighted by some bone-jarring hits. The staff likes the kid's potential.
Manning the corner spot opposite Lenley will be one of two seniors. Either David Jones (11 tackles in '07)) or Robbie McAtee (11 tackles in '07). Marcus McClinton, Ashton Cobb and Calvin Harrison should all see significant time in the defensive backfield in 2008.
The linebacking corps will be led by Braxton Kelley (6-0, 226) who finished third on the team in tackles last year. Kelley returns for his senior season, but will be moving from the middle to the weakside to help offset the loss of Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard was the conference leader in tackles each of the past two seasons. Kelley had a great spring game, racking up 12 tackles and an interception. He actually finished the game as the leading tackler among all participants.
Junior Micah Johnson mans the middle for the Wildcats after making 58 tackles in 2007. Senior Johnny Williams returns to the strong side where he finished 2007 with 43 tackles.
The defensive front returns three starters, including junior Jeremy Jarmon (6-3, 285) who may just be the team's best defensive player. Jarmon was one of the few defenders last year actually capable of generating any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. His 9 sacks were far and away the best on the team in 2007. Jarmon also chipped in 62 tackles with 13.5 of them going for a loss of yardage.
Corey Peters (6-3, 290) and Myron Prior (6-1, 310) return to man the tackle positions as senior Ventrell Jenkins (6-2, 287) moves from the inside to defensive end. Though primarily a run-stuffer last season Jenkins did manage 4 sacks, and appears to have the athleticism to make the move and be successful. He'll be heavily counted on in 2008 to be the bookend opposite Jarmon.
In terms of movers and shakers, the kicking game might be the most stable are of the team, as the unit returns both kickers as well as experienced return men in Dicky Lyons and Demoreo Ford.
Junior Lones Seiber returns to handle the place kicking chores after going 16-25 last year. Slightly disturbing however, is the 51 of 54 PAT conversions. Three missed extra points is tough to swallow no matter the situation.
Tim Masthay returns to do the punting after a respectable 39.8 yards per punt average and a long of 63.
Lyons returned 15 kicks last year for an average of over 22 yards per, while Ford split time on punt returns with Rafael Little. Ford handled 8 punts, averaging 6.2 yards per return.