Kentucky enters the second half of the college football season with a 3-3 record. The theory was that the Wildcats needed to win at least one of the two road games at South Carolina and Auburn to generate enough momentum for a strong finish, and the Cats accomplished that with a 21-14 win over the Tigers last week. The rest of the schedule sets up well for UK, with three straight winnable home games and a road trip to Vanderbilt before closing out at Georgia and at home against Tennessee. Here's a position-by-position mid-season report card on the Wildcats.
Mike Hartline got off to a decent start against Miami (Ohio) and Louisville, struggled (like most other quarterbacks have) against Florida and Alabama and appeared to be coming into his own before suffering what could turn out to be a season-ending knee injury at South Carolina. The combination of freshman Morgan Newton, junior Will Fidler and Randall Cobb in the Wildcat formation got the Cats by against Auburn, but the passing game must improve if UK wants to make a serious run down the stretch.
Junior Derrick Locke has made a rapid recovery from major knee surgery to become one of the Southeastern Conference's most versatile and productive backs. He leads the league in all-purpose yards. The major concern with Locke, whose 99 carries is more than triple the amount of UK's No. 2 guy (Randall Cobb), is making sure he stays healthy for the second half of the season. UK was expecting to have a three-headed monster at tailback, but Alfonso Smith has been slowed by a sprained thumb while Locke's emergence has limited Moncell Allen to 19 carries. John Conner has been his usual steady self at fullback.
Cobb has been such a multi-purpose threat that it's easy to forget that he ranks in the SEC's top 10 in receptions per game and receiving yards. But the rest of the receiving corps has been somewhat of a disappointment. The coaching staff had hoped Chris Matthews would be a solid No. 2 out of the gate but he's going through the usual adjustment period that junior-college receivers go through. The coaches hope the light will come on for Matthews before the season ends. None of the other receivers has made a significant jump from last year, and there's been little to no production from the tight end position.
Rich Brooks thought last year's offensive line had the potential to be his best ever at UK, and while that group didn't live up to those expectations, the 2009 unit is looking like it might. The Kentucky front five proved its mettle against solid Alabama and South Carolina defensive lines and paved the way for a 282-yard rushing performance in the pivotal win at Auburn. The group has also been tight in pass protection, giving up just six sacks in six games.
This unit was expected to be a work in progress and, after a slow start, the UK defensive line has been showing signs of life. Tackle Corey Peters has been dominant the past two weeks, and Taylor Wyndham has shown signs of being a playmaker at end. Junior-college transfer DeQuin Evans has three sacks and should continue to develop in the second half of the season.
Senior Micah Johnson has played like an All-SEC candidate, leading the team with 52 tackles while making 4.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Sam Maxwell has been perhaps the biggest play-maker with two interceptions and five pass breakups, and keep your eye on sophomore Danny Trevathan, who had a career game at Auburn and could be on the verge of catching fire.
Considering all the injuries, defensive coordinator Steve Brown and secondary coach Chris Thurmond have done a good job of piecing together a respectable unit. Starting cornerbacks Trevard Lindley and Paul Warford both missed multiple games, but sophomore Randall Burden has been holding his own as a fill-in while freshman Martavious Neloms also got his feet wet with a start at South Carolina. Warford returned to the lineup with a bang at Auburn, and once Lindley is back, UK's top four corners will all have starting experience. Both safeties have been productive: Winston Guy is second on the team in tackles (40) and Calvin Harrison has two picks and a fumble recovery.
There have been some positives. The return game has been solid, and punter Ryan Tydlacka helped UK control field position at Auburn. But the negatives have been glaring: the blocked punt return TD against Florida, the two long kickoff returns that set up South Carolina touchdowns, and the blocked field-goal return TD at Auburn.