Randall Cobb attended high school just a hop, skip and a jump away from Neyland Stadium, and any time he turned his head he stood a good chance of seeing Tennessee orange around him. On Saturday, he'll attempt to become the first Kentucky quarterback in 24 years to lead the Wildcats to a win over the Volunteers.
Yet trying to get Cobb to admit that Saturday's game between UK and UT holds any special significance is like trying to pry the fangs out of the mouth of a pit bull. Cobb said the only extra excitement is that, for the first time, both of his grandmothers will be present for one of his games.
"I'm treating it like any other game," Cobb said. "I've got to prepare myself like I did the past four or five weeks and get better on the practice field and get better in the meeting rooms."
While Cobb has been politically correct all week in his comments leading up to the game, Cobb's teammates aren't buying it.
When asked if Cobb really thinks it's just another game, junior defensive tackle Corey Peters said, "Anybody that knows him knows that's not true."
Junior running back Alfonso Smith also chimed in.
"I think he wants to go down there, end the streak and score three touchdowns," Smith said. "I don't think all that talk is real. He wants this game. I can see it in his eyes in practice. It seems like he's focused, and he's ready."
Cobb returned home to Alcoa, Tenn., last weekend during UK's open date. His high school coach, Gary Rankin, will be among many in the Alcoa community who will be in Knoxville on Saturday cheering on Cobb.
"I'm sure he wants to come down here and put on a show for all of us," Rankin said. "Now, he won't say that, but I know his mind is running a hundred miles an hour. That's how he is. He's just a competitor. He came to our game while he was home, and I got a chance to spend some time with him, and I know nothing would make him happier than to play well and beat Tennessee."
Cobb's story has been well-documented. He won four straight Class 2A state titles at Alcoa, including the final two as the starting quarterback. He committed to UK in June 2007, and Tennessee offered a scholarship later that year. Cobb considered UT's offer, but ultimately kept his word and signed with Kentucky last February.
He has been one of UK's highest-impact freshmen in years, amassing 1,010 yards of total offense and 11 TDs while playing both receiver and quarterback. Cobb has gradually grown into the role of starting quarterback while Tennessee continues to have problems at the position. Tennessee has played four quarterbacks and is one of the few teams with worse passing numbers than UK, having thrown for nearly 300 yards less and three fewer touchdowns.
"It's by far the most challenging quarterback situation that we've had," Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer said.
Cobb said he has never stopped to think what might have been if he had ended up at Tennessee and added he doesn't have a chip on his shoulder because the Vols waited awhile before offering a scholarship.
"It's time to let that recruiting stuff go," Cobb said. "We're too far into it to start talking about recruiting. That's nothing to me anymore. I'm a Kentucky Wildcat. Once I signed those papers, it was over. There are no hard feelings."
If the Cats are to end the streak, Cobb will probably play a large role. UK had 241 yards of total offense in a 31-24 loss to Vanderbilt on Nov. 15, and Cobb was responsible for 216 of those (144 passing, 72 rushing).
Players who return home often fall victim to being too jacked up and try to do too much, but UK Coach Rich Brooks said a little extra emotion from Cobb could provide a spark to a team that has struggled out of the gate for much of the year. Both Brooks and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips expressed confidence in Cobb's ability to handle the situation.
"I think he's handled things pretty well other than a case of nerves in his first start," Brooks said. "He may have a case of nerves going into that stadium, but I think he's handled things remarkably well for a young true freshman to be thrust into the situation that he has been. This will be another step in that maturation process."
"I'm sure it's got to be a big game for him," Phillips said. "The guy grew up 20 minutes from the stadium and knows all the players. But I don't worry about him being able to handle the situation. It'll be an emotional game for him for sure, but he'll know how to handle it."
Jarmon, Lumpkin out
Defensive end Jeremy Jarmon (knee) and defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin (ankle) have been ruled out for the Tennessee game because of injuries.