Life is good for Rich Brooks these days. He's coming off his third straight bowl win. His three juniors who were exploring entering the NFL Draft all announced this week that they're staying at Kentucky. And he's expecting to sign his best recruiting class at UK in a little less than three weeks.
Getting all three of his defensive stalwarts back — cornerback Trevard Lindley, defensive end Jeremy Jarmon and linebacker Micah Johnson — was a pleasant surprise. In their NFL Draft evaluations, Johnson and Jarmon were both projected in the middle rounds. Lindley, however, received a second-round grade.
"I advised Trevard to look very seriously at it, because second-round money is very significant," Brooks said. "In Micah and Jeremy's cases, I felt they could significantly enhance their position with another year."
Brooks said he doesn't know exactly what went into Lindley's decision to return, although he did say Lindley could benefit from adding strength in the off-season. Considering that Lindley should be one of the nation's top returning corners in 2009, Brooks probably didn't ask too many questions, either. But this year's trend saw more top-flight players e_SEmD including perhaps the three top quarterbacks in the country in 2008, Florida's Tim Tebow, Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Texas' Colt McCoy — deciding to stay in school.
"I think that the college experience is as good as it's been in a long time," Brooks said. "Our players' college experience (at Kentucky) has gotten a lot better since we're winning. Players I think enjoy college life. Many people say the college years are the most carefree, fun years of your life. There's plenty of time to take on burdens and responsibility of the real world."
Brooks also believes the juniors learned a lesson from former Wildcats such as Wesley Woodyard, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme, NFL rookies who told plenty of war stories when they returned to Lexington during their team's open dates.
"Those guys were telling them how much they missed what they were doing (in college)," Brooks said. "The NFL is a wonderful experience. But it certainly isn't college football."
Kentucky is now only one of 11 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision to win three straight bowl games, and its Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina extended its non-conference winning streak to 14 games, the second-longest in the country.
Those successes have not only increased expectations within the program, but with the fan base as well. The next step for Brooks and Co. is to get into the thick of the competition in the SEC East. Brooks is hoping that the resiliency the program has built during its three-year renaissance will get the Cats over the hump.
"We were a few bounces away from two or three more wins, and we were a few bounces away from two or three more losses," Brooks said. "The good news is that we don't roll over and play dead when something goes wrong. We've shown that we can come from behind, battle and compete for the most part."
"Sure I would like to have an SEC East championship, a run at a BCS bowl, anything in that category that separates you from the above .500 stuff."
Brooks on title changes
Brooks spoke publicly for the first time since Thursday's announcement that the title of offensive coordinator Joker Phillips will be changed to head coach of offense with former quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders taking over the title of offensive coordinator.
"Randy has earned the right to move up and resume some of the duties that he had when he was an offensive coordinator (at Tennessee)," Brooks said. "He's an outstanding coach, and Joker's position doesn't change. The two guys have worked very well together. Randy has input into a lot of things and that will expand a little, but the day-to day-role will not change significantly."
Brooks said the move also gives Phillips, the head coach-in-waiting, a chance to prepare to take over when he retires. It will also sweeten the pot for Sanders, who has been sought out for other positions each of the past two off-seasons.
"Joker is expanding his antenna with management, this gives him a little more comfort when Randy has his back," Brooks said. "It also gets a little more money in Randy's pocket and makes it more difficult for him to ... go someplace else."
Hartline goes into spring No. 1 at QB
Brooks reiterated on Friday what he said following the Liberty Bowl: Junior-to-be Mike Hartline will go into spring practice as the starting quarterback.
"He's the guy until he either doesn't perform well enough or somebody performs better than him," Brooks said. "We'll probably have three scrimmages in the spring that will be significant, then we'll decide what the pecking order still is, knowing that we will have additional people in the mix in summer and fall."
Brooks said that three players underwent recent shoulder surgeries. Junior linebacker Mike Schwindel had surgery to repair a torn labrum, an injury that Brooks said could be career-ending. Starting right tackle Justin Jeffries' surgery will keep him out of contact during the spring, and departing senior Braxton Kelley had surgery for a torn labrum and will be out of action for 3-4 months.