Scouting the Cats: Wide receivers unit gets jolt of youth

With randall cobb gone to the NFL, Kentucky hopes its rookie receivers won't drop the ball

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2011 

  • Scouting the wide receivers

    The main man: La'Rod King. The 6-foot-4 junior from Radcliff has the most experience of any returning receiver. He caught 36 balls for 478 yards and five touchdowns last season and he has good chemistry with quarterback Morgan Newton. King also has taken on a leadership role for a heralded crop of freshman receivers.

    The supporting cast: Gene McCaskill is back after sitting out last season with knee surgery and he can play at all three receiver spots. Other returnees at the position include 6-5 Matt Roark, 6-4 Brian Adams as well as 6-4 juniors Aaron Boyd and E.J. Fields. A talented group of freshmen have come in to challenge for spots as well.

    Newcomer to watch: Freshman Daryl Collins, who spurned Alabama for a chance to play right away, has been likened to former UK standout Randall Cobb (now with the Green Bay Packers) in his versatility and ability. Look for Collins to make a name for himself as a freshman.

    Outlook: There are a lot of question marks at this position that can only be answered on game day. It's nearly impossible to replace All-Southeastern Conference performers like Cobb (1,017 yards and seven TDs) and Chris Matthews (925 yards, nine TDs), but Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips and position coach Tee Martin believe they have a special freshman class that is pushing the veterans to be even better.

  • This is the first in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football team position by position.Coming Saturday: Quarterbacks

Instead of catching footballs, maybe Kentucky's freshman wide receivers should be holding leather briefcases.

Instead of donning Nike cleats, maybe they should be wearing Gucci wing tips.

"They've come in with the attitude of being professionals," UK wide receivers coach Tee Martin said.

Kentucky lost two of its top receivers last year in Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews.

Coach Joker Phillips called the wide receiver spot his biggest concern coming into the season.

But so far the Cats' freshman receivers have impressed nearly everyone, including some of the returning veterans at that spot.

"Their intensity level is unreal," said junior La'Rod King, who is the top returning receiver with 36 receptions for 478 yards and five touchdowns last season. "All the young guys are hungry. ... There are a couple of them that have had 'wow' moments where you see he's going to be pretty good."

It hasn't become apparent which of the five freshmen brought in to beef up UK's corps will be big-time playmakers on game day (or even which of them will still be playing at that position), but as a class, they've been impressive.

"They're talented and they're electric," junior quarterback Morgan Newton said. "They make my job easier and make you look better as a player. We're excited to see what they can do."

Four of the five freshmen — Daryl Collins, DeMarco Robinson, Rashad Cunningham and Josh Forrest — already have shown something to their position coach. (Nile Daniel is still working on his eligibility.)

"They're smart kids; they're working hard, but we have a pretty extensive system and every day they're getting a little bit better and made some plays," Martin said. "We just continue to push them and see how much they can absorb. It's not a deal where we want to say we've got a 'freshman package.' We want to put the whole system on them and see how fast and how quickly they learn it and how much they absorb."

If they're struggling, the coaches and players aren't talking about it.

Of course, the freshmen are off limits to the media until they see game action, which for many could come as early as the season opener on Sept. 1 versus Western Kentucky.

If the freshmen do have struggles, they ask questions.

Last week Martin could be seen working with all of his wide receivers long after practices had ended for the day.

"We have a staff meeting and I hear they're down there watching tape, challenging each other," Martin said. "They're the most competitive group I've been around in a long time to be that young."

Part of the freshman class's advanced development comes from playing that position in high school. It used to be that coaches went out and recruited good athletes and turned them into receivers.

Phillips pointed to the five freshman wideouts that came in with Cobb. Most of them were quarterbacks at the high school level.

Not these players.

"We went out and were able to find guys that had played that position, caught a lot of balls," the head coach and former UK wide receiver said. "So they understand the position, how to line up in a stance. In their mind they've got an idea how to defeat press coverage, got an idea of how to read coverages on the run."

The second part of the freshman class's advancement has been in part due to a veteran group of receivers including King, Gene McCaskill, Brian Adams, E.J. Fields and Matt Roark among others.

"They've been great just teaching them the system and that's probably why those guys are further along than you would expect as freshmen," Martin said of his veterans. "Those older guys have been grabbing them, helping them out, taking care of them over in the dorm, making sure they study and do the right stuff."

The freshmen are doing what they can to make the veterans better, too.

"When the talent got here, it did make some other guys start working harder," Martin said. "They're all competitors and they don't want to lose their spot."

King acknowledged that he's working harder because of the newcomers.

"They make me be more competitive," King said. "I don't want a freshman to take my spot. If one takes my spot, that's my fault. That's on me. I need to just work harder."

DB Priester leaves team

Kentucky's secondary took another hit Thursday when Coach Joker Phillips announced the departure of cornerback Jerrell Priester.

The 5-foot-9 sophomore from Ulmer, S.C., opted to leave the program.

"We wish him well," Phillips said after practice. "It's one of those things that's kind of common at this time of the year, that kids leave. We'll wish him well and keep this thing going."

Priester, who was rated the No. 17 prospect out of South Carolina and the nation's No. 59 all-purpose athlete, according to Rivals.com, played in nine games last season.

He got several snaps as a backup at cornerback, getting four stops and two tackles for a loss against Charleston Southern. He also played on special teams, where he returned two kickoffs for an average of 27.5 yards.

Last week, Phillips announced the departures of senior free safety Josh Gibbs for undisclosed "personal reasons" and sophomore linebacker Qua Huzzie, who ended up transferring to Murray State.

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