The anticipation level for the start of spring football could be at an all-time high at the University of Kentucky.
Granted, UK football has always had a pretty strong legion of followers, despite its history. The fact that Kentucky has three straight bowl wins, three legitimate All-America candidates on defense, and the best recruiting class of the Rich Brooks era has added to the excitement.
And the possibility that Cat fans may have to sit through March Madness without their beloved Wildcats for the first time in 19 seasons will cause many to fast-forward to football.
There hasn't been much action on the football front since national signing day, but things are starting to pick up. Kentucky played host to 20 recruits on Junior Day at the LSU basketball game last weekend. UK's draft prospects will audition for scouts at Pro Day on Wednesday. And the returning players have been partaking in winter conditioning, with spring practice set to start April 1.
Brooks said he has two primary objectives for the spring: improving an offense that struggled to move the ball last year, and determining which young players are ready to climb up the depth chart.
"The No. 1 thing we try to ascertain is who's improved and ready to take a major step forward next year, and then our goals are to be a much better productive offense," Brooks said. "Our third-down offense was clearly not good enough last year."
Brooks said off-season workouts have gone well despite a recent flu outbreak. The Cats were hit with a similar bug during the season. Brooks said he'll know how much his team has improved physically on Pro Day, when underclassmen run the 40-yard dash among other physical tests.
Brooks OK with Miami game on Sept. 5
UK Coach Rich Brooks said last week he wouldn't have any problem playing Miami (Ohio) University at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium on Sept. 5. If that game gets scheduled, UK would have an open date Sept. 12 and then would have to play on 11 consecutive Saturdays.
Brooks said too much emphasis can be put on open dates. Kentucky is 3-4 following bye weeks during Brooks' tenure, including a 28-10 loss to Tennessee in the regular-season finale last year.
"That's not a major issue," Brooks said. "We've had to play a lot of games in a row in the past. Sometimes it's better that way. You really never can predict how banged up you're going to be. We had a bye before the Tennessee game last year and it didn't do us much good."
Allen expected to practice
Running back Moncell Allen should be available for spring practice, Brooks said last week. Allen, who missed the Liberty Bowl for academic reasons, rushed for 202 yards last season as a sophomore. With junior-to-be Derrick Locke limited to non-contact drills while recovering from knee surgery, Allen and senior Alfonso Smith will be the only two healthy scholarship tailbacks this spring.
Offensive line reshuffling
One of the issues facing the UK offensive line this season is replacing three-year starter Garry Williams at left tackle. The Wildcats will also be without starting right tackle Justin Jeffries, who will be limited to non-contact drills following off-season shoulder surgery.
The Cats do have plenty of depth up front, though; now it's just a matter of placing right pieces in the right parts. Brooks said senior-to-be Zipp Duncan will move from left guard to left tackle, with Stuart Hines, Jake Lanefski and Christian Johnson as candidates to take Duncan's spot. Billy Joe Murphy, Brad Durham and Trevino Woods can also help fill in at either tackle spot. It's a long way from Brooks' first spring when he barely had enough offensive linemen to field a practice.
"We've got a much better starting position than we've had in past years," Brooks said. "I think we've got some choice. It's always difficult when you lose a guy like Jeffries, but it also gives you an opportunity to get a long look at some other guys."
Thurmond to return
UK Coach Rich Brooks said linebacker Brandon Thurmond, who has missed the past two seasons after undergoing three knee surgeries, has been cleared to participate in non-contact drills this spring. The 6-foot-2, 226-pounder had looked like a potential contributor at weak-side linebacker before the knee injuries hit. Thurmond hasn't practiced since spring 2007.
"It will be good to see him back on the field running around," Brooks said.
Brooks not for changing celebration penalty
UK Coach Rich Brooks isn't the type who condones on-the-field celebrating. He fumed last season when Randall Cobb was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct after prancing into the end zone in the Georgia game.
But Brooks isn't in favor of a recommendation by the NCAA Rules Committee that would make some celebration penalties live-ball fouls. Under the proposal, if a player ran for a long touchdown but taunted a defender at the 5-yard line, the 15-yard penalty would be enforced at the spot of the foul and the touchdown would be wiped out.
"I think it's going a little too far to be taking points off the board," Brooks said. "To me, a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff is enough."
Ironically, the chair of the rules committee exploring the celebration penalty is Mike Bellotti, who coached under Brooks at Oregon and succeeded him when he left for the NFL. Brooks said he can understand why college football is trying to separate itself from the NFL, which has much less stringent rules on celebrations.
"It's a selfish gesture, but as long as the rules that we have are in place and kids understand the severity, I think that's enough," Brooks said. "You're still going to get hit from time to time, but I think it's a stupid penalty and one that's unnecessary. Kids watch the NFL, where you can do anything, and it's become a problem."
Brooks to be honored by Calif. Hall of Fame
UK Coach Rich Brooks will be inducted into the Northern California Sports Association Hall of Fame at the organization's annual dinner on March 28 in Yuba City, Calif. Born in Forest, Calif., Brooks began his athletic career at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley, Calif., where he competed in football, basketball, track and boxing. He also served as an assistant coach with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers.
Numbers show UK fans' impact on Music City Bowl
An annual economic impact report released by the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl shows the effect UK fans had during their back-to-back trips in 2006 and 2007. The Wildcats posted successive record sellout crowds, and the Nashville area received an economic impact of more than $20.6 million in 2006 and $27 million in 2007. By comparison, the economic impact immediately prior to and after UK's appearances generated $7.7 million in 2005 and $9.9 million in 2008.
Spring Game set for 1:30
The kickoff for UK's Blue/White Spring Game has been set for 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 25 at Commonwealth Stadium.
Chip Cosby covers UK football for the Herald-Leader. This article includes his opinions and observations. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org