Wildcats Thunder Football/Recruiting Analyst
With the Wildcats now 4-0 in 2007, with a national ranking and impressive upsets of UL and Arkansas, UK fans are eagerly wondering which bowl game will extend an invitation to the Cats in December. In reality, most of the key events that will shape that issue won't take place until October and November. As I have said previously, I believe this is UK's best football team since 1984, if not longer than that. However, UK's 2007 schedule is tough, and the toughest portion still lies ahead. Currently, UK fans are looking at what the Cats accomplished against UL and Arkansas, and wondering if these great peformances can be built-on against South Carolina, LSU, and Florida next month.
So in some respects, this is an odd time to talk about 2008.
And yet, many UK fans are already mindful that Woodson, Little, Burton, Johnson, Tamme, and Woodyard won't be back next season. They see the remarkable senior leadership coming from these six exceptional seniors, and they already wonder and worry how Coach Brooks and his staff will be able to move UK past their graduations without a dropoff in performance.
On this thread, I want to give you a little glimpse of what lies ahead for UK's football program in 2008. I do not do this to divert anyone's attention away from the formidible challenges still lying ahead this fall. I offer these comments simply because the subject is already on people's minds.
Obviously, this is where the graduations will hit hardest. Losing Woodson, Little, Burton, Johnson, and Tamme will cut the heart and sole out of UK's powerful, nationally-ranked offensive unit. I think I know how Joker Phillips and Randy Sanders will try to cope with the personnel losses.
Next spring, Joker's top priorities will be to produce incremental improvement in the play of Coach Heggins' unit, and to find a new QB.
Although UK's key skill position players are seniors, OTOH most of the key players on UK's OL are underclassmen. There is a lot of young, athletic talent in UK's OL rotations. 2007 starters Garry Williams, Zipp Duncan, and Justin Jefferies will be back. If Jefferies continues his rapid, impressive development, UK may have one of the SEC's better OT tandems. They will be backed up by junior James Alexander, true soph Brad Durham, and redshirt freshmen Phil Hibbard and Billy Joe Murphy. That's a big, deep, talented OT cast. On the inside, Jorge Gonzalez and Marcus Davis will fight for the starting center role. Duncan, Christian Johnson, Stuart Hines, Jake Lanefski, Josh Winchell, and Jess Beets will return at OG. This is UK's deepest OL in many years. The young kids will need seasoning, but there is a lot of athletic upside.
Back-up QB Mike Hartline will return for his sophomore season in 2008. Hartline has undergone a lot of critical scrutiny this fall, but fans tend to forget that Woodson himself was indecisive and prone to mental mistakes as a true freshman in 2004. Hartline has a huge frame, a strong arm, and excellent vision of the field. Under Randy Sanders' tutelage, he is making progress by the week. However, no amount of progress by Hartline this fall will save him from having to compete for his 2008 role in April. When spring drills roll around, Hartline is destined to face another formidible contender in redshirt freshman Matt Lentz. Moreover, Curtis Pulley (the man who tentatively won the starting QB job in April, 2006) is also redshirting this fall, and may compete with Hartline and Lentz in April. Any of these three could realistically win the 2008 starting QB job, but I think Lentz will be very hard to beat. I believe Lentz has an opportunity to be a special player for UK.
Whoever wins the QB job, expect him to be handing the football off a lot in 2008. Here's why. With an athletic, improving OL, Joker Phillips will want to exploit his deep, talented stable of RBs. Although Little will be gone, the list of returning RBs is impressive. It includes Tony Dixon, Alfonzo Smith, Derrick Locke, Antoine Brown, Moncell Allen, and Brandon Jackson. All of them are SEC caliber, and Locke and Jackson could turn out to be special.
UK's 2008 passing game is a retooling job that will have to be accomplished in stages. Although starters Burton, Johnson, and Tamme will be gone, the WR rotation will still be pretty good with Rich Lyons, Demoreo Ford, Kyrus Lanxter, and Anthony Mobley. If Pulley eventually joins them (as I fully expect), so much the better. Someone will have to step up at TE, where Ross Bogue and TC Drake will be juniors. This is a spot where a true freshman could have an impact if the right guy can be signed. Also keep an eye on former QB Will Fidler, who is now seeing snaps at TE for the scout team.
In terms of tactics, look for Joker to establish UK's rushing game by exploiting his stable of swift RBs and his big, athletic OL. The passing game will be based primarily on play-action at first, which will give the UK QB a big advantage when UK's rushing game is effective. Joker will also exploit RBs Dixon, Smith, Locke, and Jackson as receivers out of the backfield.
I believe this is the area of the team where we will see the biggest improvement in 2008. Already, Steve Brown's unit is vastly improved over 2006. By next fall, the players will have had a full season under their belts with Brown as their DC. Current seniors Woodyard, Dominick Lewis, and Roger Williams will be missed. But this is primarily still a young unit with a number of up and coming stars like Myron Pryor, Corey Peters, Ventrell Jenkins, Shane McCord, Jeremy Jarmon, Jamil Paris, Braxton Kelley, Micah Johnson, Johnny Williams, Sam Maxwell, Trevard Lindley, Paul Warford, Ashton Cobb, Calvin Harrison,and Marcus McClinton. If injured players like EJ Adams, Nii Adjei Oninku, and Ricky Lumpkin are able to make it back, so much the better.
I believe the interior of UK's defense is becoming very strong, even by SEC standards. Aside from the stellar CB Lindley, Peters is UK's best defensive player in the current freshman and sophomore classes. Jarmon and McCord would be next on that list, while Micah Johnson is improving steadily. Meanwhile, safety Marcus McClinton has become a real headhunter in run support. As a result, UK's defense is becoming much more effective against the rush. By next season, I think they can be very good. If Adams comes back healthy, UK's pass defense will also be excellent. A stronger pass rush from Jarmon and Paris will only help.
In body type and athleticism, Jarmon reminds me of former Bama All American DE John Copeland, who played a while for the Cincinnati Bengals. Jarmon is only a soph. By 2008, I think he will be special.
Meanwhile, I think Pryor and Peters are becoming the best pair of DTs to play at UK at least since Dewayne Roberston and Jeremy Caudill, if not longer than that. Although neither is as good as Robertson yet, both of them have a chance to become that kind of player eventually. And in the long run, McCord may be just as good.
Even by SEC standards, UK's defensive backfield is impressive. Lindley and McClinton have a legitimate chance to become two of the SEC's best defensive backs, while Cobb could also join them. Current true freshman Randall Burden is another DB to watch.
It should first be mentioned that UK's two current kickers will be back in 2008. So will Ryan Tydlacka. So far, punter Tim Masthay appears to be one of UK's most improved football players in 2007. However, if placekicker Lones Seiber continues to struggle, we might see Tydlacka compete for that job in April. Although star return men Little and Burton will be gone, UK's kick return game will be in good hands with Lyons, Ford, Dixon, Smith, Locke, and Jackson.
Aug. 30, Louisville, @ Louisville, KY
Sept. 6, Open
Sept. 13, Akron @ Commonwealth Stadium
Sept. 20, Open
Sept. 27, Temple @ Commonwealth Stadium
Oct. 4, Alabama @ Tuscaloosa, Al
Oct. 11, South Carolina @ Commonwealth Stadium
Oct. 18, Arkansas @ Commonwealth Stadium
Oct. 25, Florida @ Gainesville, FL
Nov. 1, Mississippi State @ Starkville, MS
Nov. 8, Georgia @ Commonwealth Stadium
Nov. 15, Vanderbilt @ Commonwealth Stadium
Nov. 22, Open
Nov. 29, Tennessee @ Knoxville, TN
It should be noted that all teams (i.e., not just UK) lose players every year by graduation and attrition. That said, it is too early to talk in detail about UK's individual 2008 games. UK's current 2008 schedule features six home games, five road games, and three bye weeks. Look for UK Director of Football Operations Steve Hellyer to add a 12th game during one of the September bye weeks. I'm guessing Hellyer will pull out all the stops to schedule a nonconference game in Lexington on September 6. I feel certain Hellyer is working on this, because it makes compelling sense, and because I know his philosophy from my previous discussions of the topic with him. By rule, D-1 teams need six victories to qualify for bowl eligibility. UK would have a much better opportunity to reach this parameter in 2008 by playing 12 games, rather than the 11 games on the current schedule.
That being said, this schedule presents a good opportunity for another bowl season. It's another difficult SEC schedule, but the games will be winnable if UK executes on the gridiron.
Look for UK's offense to become more of a ball control unit, with 4-5 athletic RBs shuffling regularly in and out of games. With a vastly improved OL in 2008, Joker should be able to get burners Smith and Locke to the edge, while versatile talents like Dixon and Jackson will be other major weapons in the rushing and passing games. With a legitimate SEC rushing attack, Joker and Sanders will bring the young QBs and the passing game along gradually with play-action at times, and liberal use of the backs as receivers at other times. Although they will be inexperienced, all of UK's QBs have the arm strength to throw the football all over the field. And although Burton and Johnson will obviously be missed, UK's WRs will be more than adequate (especially if Pulley moves to WR, as expected). An effective TE will have to be found, but Joker could fill this role by using several players situationally.
Defensively, the 2008 Cats will feature a more effective pass rush and a much stiffer defense against the run. UK DBs like Trevard Lindley, Ashton Cobb, and Marcus McClinton will opportunistically pick off anything that is not thrown on the money. Just as we have seen in 2006 and 2007, the 2008 Cats will be very opportunistic.
This will be facilitated by more effective special teams.
Monday, September 24, 2007