Rookie receivers must learn fast

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 23, 2008 

  • Coach: Joker Phillips, UK’s offensive coordinator and future head coach, is in his sixth season coaching wide receivers at Kentucky under Rich Brooks. Phillips lettered at receiver for Kentucky from 1981-84 and also coached at UK under Bill Curry from 1988-96.

    The main man: Dicky Lyons Jr. has spent much of the past two seasons playing in the shadows of Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson, but Lyons has had a solid UK career in his own right. He burned Florida for 124 yards and three TDs last fall and has posted back-to-back 50-catch seasons.

    The supporting cast: DeMoreo Ford is the second-most experienced receiver behind Lyons, but it’s not clear how much of an impact he’ll have in the Louisville game because of the death of his brother and his continuing rehabilitation of a torn patella tendon. Kyrus Lanxter is fresh off a wrist injury but got his feet wet as a true freshman last fall. E.J. Adams made some big plays in the spring but is still learning the nuances of the receiver position after moving from cornerback. The Cats have a three-tight end rotation with Maurice Grinter, T.C. Drake and Ross Bogue.

    Newcomer to watch: Matt Roark came in with less fanfare than some of the other receivers UK signed in February, but the lanky 6-foot-6 Georgia native has climbed the depth chart the fastest of any of the freshmen. He doesn’t possess overwhelming speed but is a big target who is physical and can run routes. Fellow freshmen Eric Adeyemi and Gene McCaskill are also in the hunt.

    Reasons for optimism: Lyons gives the Wildcats offense a true No. 1 receiver who has produced against some of the top defenses in the country the last two seasons.

    Reasons for concern: The Wildcats have virtually no proven players behind Lyons. Not only are most of the wide-outs green, but even the veterans haven’t produced a lot: Ford has 20 catches in three years, and Lanxter has just one.

    Outlook: Expect a major drop-off at this position after losing a boatload of talent to the NFL.

    Chip Cosby

It took Dicky Lyons Jr. just one play in Kentucky’s first fall scrimmage to let him know he was in a different world than he’s been in the last two seasons.

In 2006 and 2007, Lyons was lined up next to experienced playmakers in Steve Johnson, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme. But when Lyons broke out of the huddle last Saturday, he looked over and saw freshmen receivers Matt Roark, Eric Adeyemi and Gene McCaskill in the play. The play call was a bubble screen, but it didn’t get executed quite like Lyons had been used to.

“The freshmen didn’t pick up the blocking scheme, so (senior cornerback Robbie) McAtee came down, shed the block and knocked the wind out of me,” Lyons said. “I was so mad and I was saying to myself, if the freshmen don’t know what they’re doing, not only am I not going to catch the ball, I’m going to get killed.”

Later that week, Lyons ran the same play with junior DeMoreo Ford as his lead blocker, and the result was different.

“It was the same blocking scheme, but I didn’t even have to look out there, because I knew he was going to get the job done,” Lyons said.

Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks feels good about Lyons, who has caught 116 passes for 1,477 yards and 16 touchdowns the past two seasons. But he’s not sure what other pass-catchers he has at his disposal.

Ford, a physical fourth-year junior, has played in 30 career games but missed practice time this week after returning to LaGrange, Ga., to attend the funeral of his older brother, Kendall Thomas, who died of heart failure last Sunday. Ford is also recovering from a torn patella tendon suffered in the spring.

Kyrus Lanxter appeared in five games as a true freshman but just had a cast removed from a wrist he injured over the summer.

“At least those guys know what to do,” Brooks said of his veterans. “The others still are on a learning curve, and I’m losing patience with that learning curve.”

Brooks and Lyons might have to live with rookie mistakes, though, because several of those freshmen will be in the rotation this fall, and while they might not know what to do just yet, they bring talent to the table.

The 6-foot-6 Roark has been one of fall camp’s biggest surprises. He came to UK as a quarterback but has been impressive enough at receiver that there’s a good chance he could be in the starting lineup when the Wildcats take on Louisville next Sunday.

Adeyemi, a speedster from Miami, and McCaskill, a South Carolina native, have also been getting repetitions. E.J. Adams is a junior but is in his first full season playing receiver after starting out at cornerback.

“Matt’s shown he’s tough enough to play wide receiver,” offensive coordinator and receivers coach Joker Phillips said. “I think he’s athletic enough and fast enough as well. I really believe he’ll be a big-time player for us before it’s all over.”

The wild card is Randall Cobb, another true freshman who has been seeing the majority of his practice time at quarterback but could see some time at receiver also. Lyons gave Cobb a ringing endorsement as a receiver.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt he’d be the No. 2 guy if he worked strictly at wide receiver,” Lyons said. “He’s that good.”

One of the toughest things the rookies have had to deal with is fighting through the dog days of fall camp. Freshman Aaron Boyd from Henry Clay was out with mono but returned to practice Friday. Another freshman, E.J. Fields of Frankfort, has been slowed by a hamstring pull.

The only freshman who hasn’t missed is Roark.

“Some guys have a little ‘owie’ and can’t get through a practice, then they’ll miss one, then they come back, and then they’ll miss another one,” Brooks said. “We’ve still got our work cut out for us, but we better start getting crisper in the next three or four days.”

The Wildcats have three options at tight end, and all have contrasting styles. Junior Maurice Grinter is a converted fullback with soft hands who could thrive on intermediate routes; junior T.C. Drake is a tall target and a physical blocker who had a good spring catching the ball; and junior Ross Bogue is mainly a blocker.

While things might look a little rough right now, Phillips thinks his unit is headed in the right direction. “I think there’ll be some mistakes early, but when all is said and done, we’ll be strong at wide receiver,” Phillips said.

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