UK receivers not catching on

mstory@herald-leader.comOctober 4, 2009 

So we got spoiled.

Burton. Tamme. Johnson. Lyons Jr.

For most of two seasons, the second half of 2006 and all of '07, Kentucky could spread football fields with play-making receivers that could do damage against even the most vaunted defenses.

Now, one full season and four games later, UK still hasn't come close to replacing its lost receiving firepower.

No. 3 Alabama dusted mistake-prone Kentucky 38-20 Saturday before 70,967 in a wind-swept Commonwealth Stadium.

The Cats, surprisingly, stood toe-to-toe with the punishing lines of Nick Saban's Crimson Tide and held their own in the trenches.

But UK was done in largely by four mistakes — three interceptions and a fumble after a pass reception that was returned for a touchdown — in its passing game.

Those Kentucky miscues led directly to 17 Alabama points. The 168 yards Kentucky generated through the air didn't come close to negating those negative plays.

Though much of the blame will fall, deservedly, on the erratic play of UK starting quarterback Mike Hartline, it's also fair to ask how much help the Wildcats QB is getting from Kentucky wideouts and tight ends who are not named Randall Cobb.

"I told the wide receivers over on the bench, when Hart line is playing not his best game, then if (a pass) even touches your hands, we've got to make the play," said Kentucky running back Derrick Locke, who led UK receivers with six catches for 63 yards. "We needed to make more plays to help him out."

Just as was the case last week in Kentucky's 41-7 pasting by No. 1 Florida, only three Kentucky wideouts caught passes against Alabama.

Cobb had three for 57 yards and supplied the day's big play when he outfought Alabama's Javier Arenas and hauled in a 45-yard touchdown bomb in the third period.

Kyrus Lanxter also caught three passes, but two of them came on the game's final drive when the outcome was long decided. Chris Matthews, the highly touted junior-college receiver in whom UK invested so much pre-season hope, caught one ball for 8 yards.

A week ago against Florida, Cobb caught five balls (24 yards), Matthews three (28 yards) and Matt Roark one (15 yards).

That isn't exactly the kind of production that is going to keep SEC defensive coordinators up watching infomercials in the wee hours.

In fairness, Alabama and Florida might be the two best defenses in college football.

"A lot of people have struggled to throw the ball against (Alabama and Florida)," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "Arkansas struggled to throw the ball on (Alabama), and Arkansas has been throwing the ball on everybody."

Joker Phillips, Kentucky's head coach for offense, said the lack of down-the-field production in the UK air attack against Alabama owed much to the Crimson Tide pass rush.

"Teams struggle against them because they get after your quarterback with pressure. Trying to throw the ball down the field, you just run out of time," Phillips said.

Among the wideouts, Matthews is experiencing the same massive, first-year transition from junior-college football to the SEC that has afflicted past transfers to Kentucky. After what the coaches deemed a subpar showing against Florida, he lost his starting job.

Against Alabama, Matthews "played well," Phillips said. "We talked about playing physical all week. He tried to play physical."

Sophomore Gene McCaskill replaced Matthews with the first team Saturday. He did not have a catch, but Phillips said McCaskill made a contribution.

"We asked our receiver at his position to go in there and block on the 'backer so we could get outside in the run game," Phillips said. "He wasn't a big factor in the pass game, but in the block game, he was a big factor."

Largely missing from the UK offense this year has been production from the tight ends. Against Alabama, Kentucky tight ends did not have a catch. A potential big gain on a pass from Cobb out of the Wildcat formation went for naught when T.C. Drake dropped a catchable ball.

"A great throw by Randall," Phillips said. "We've got to make that play."

That's the thing.

Other than Cobb, not one wide receiver/tight end who takes the field for Kentucky has established himself as a consistent maker of plays.

Now into the second season since Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme left for the NFL, it's hard not to wonder: Where is Kentucky's second generation of playmaking receivers?

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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