Joker Phillips and his Kentucky Wildcats face tough uphill battle this season in the SEC.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/14/12, 12:55 PM EDT
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SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Joker Phillips, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Randy Sanders | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rick Minter
The Wildcats had one of the worst offenses in America last season, and it started at quarterback, where Morgan Newton was a disappointment. Then-freshman Max Smith took over for an injured Newton in the eighth game and provided a spark. He was even better this spring, completing 54-of-83 passes for 580 yards, six touchdowns and only two interceptions in the team’s final two scrimmages. Between Smith and incoming freshman Patrick Towles, a top-10 quarterback recruit nationally, Kentucky seems assured of an upgrade under center.
The quarterback will benefit from the return of each of last year’s top four tailbacks and career 1,000-yard receiver La’Rod King. The Cats, who had fewer plays of 20-plus yards than any team in the country last season, also believe they’ve finally found a couple of home run threats in young receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. Robinson caught nine passes for 146 yards in the Blue-White Game, while UK’s tight ends, led by vertical threats Ronnie Shields and Anthony Kendrick, caught 13 passes.
The big question is up front, where three starters and 87 career starts are gone. The Cats’ completely rebuilt left side, consisting of sophomore tackle Darrian Miller and redshirt freshman guard Zach West, will be key. Kentucky will lean on seniors Matt Smith and Larry Warford at center and right guard, respectively.
With six starters and 58 percent of last season’s tackles gone, there are plenty of unknowns. The defensive line is not one of them. All three starters are back, including a pair of wrecking-ball tackles in juniors Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble. Phillips says the duo, a combined 646 pounds of punishment, will be “as good as anybody we’ll face.”
The same is not likely true at linebacker, where all four starters are new. The good news is that middle linebacker Avery Williamson had 49 tackles as a backup last fall, and hybrid “rush backer” Alvin Dupree looked like a potential star in the spring. But the search to replace tackling machines Winston Guy and Danny Trevathan at the other two spots was unresolved after spring.
The Cats must also replace both starting corners, but that could be addition by subtraction considering last season’s struggles in coverage. Redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey locked up one of the starting spots this spring in a surprisingly smooth transition from tailback. The one proven commodity is senior safety Martavius Neloms, who has started 20 games at UK.
Kentucky can feel good about kicker Craig McIntosh, who made 12-of-14 field goals last fall. Everything else is a mystery. Ryan Tydlacka, one of the nation’s best punters in 2011, is gone, and the punting was so bad this spring that Phillips said his 2012 punter wasn’t on campus in the spring. The Cats are hopeful that receivers Collins and Robinson are ready to provide a needed spark in the return game.
Kentucky saw its streak of five consecutive bowl games snapped last season with a 5–7 record. Even if the Cats are better this fall, a tougher schedule that includes road games at Louisville, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee means that any improvement might not show up in the record. Season-ticket sales and attendance dipped last season, and only 4,500 fans showed up for the Spring Game.
Phillips’ message: “Just wait and see. Don’t give up on this football team. We’ll battle. We’ll fight. We’ll scratch. We’ll claw. Just don’t give up on this football team.”