SEASON PREVIEW: New stars ready to replace UK's lost talent

A bevy of young talent is ready to replace UK's departed playmakers

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2011 

Junior quarterback Morgan Newton, left, junior wide receiver La'Rod King, center, and sophomore running back Raymond Sanders

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

A blue Kentucky football helmet is pulled off to reveal the shaven silhouettes of stars on the sides of several players' heads during fall camp.

But coaches and players believe it's only a matter of time before real stars emerge on the field in a more dramatic way for a team full of mostly unproven offensive players.

Gone are big-time stars like Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews.

UK returns just 27 percent of its offensive production from last season. Of the Cats' 5,562 yards last season, more than 4,000 yards of it are gone.

So what's a coach to do when his biggest stars are off to their next galaxy?

He tries to create new stars at the skill positions.

"We've been here before: lost a lot of production and had to replace it," Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips said. "We're in a better position today to replace that production with the guys we have."

Sometimes the new stars come walking in the door as freshmen.

Sometimes with a little polish, players who didn't look like stars turn into them.

Just ask Andre Woodson.

UK's former star quarterback sees a ton of potential star power on this team. It reminds him and a couple of other coaches of the 2007 UK team, which had loads of potential but no clear stars in the beginning.

Woodson said this team could be like that UK team, which featured Keenan Burton, Stevie Johnson, Dicky Lyons, Jacob Tamme, Rafael Little and John Conner, among others.

"We have a lot of players that have a lot of talent this year," said Woodson, now a student assistant coach at Kentucky. "The players on this team are definitely capable of making huge names for themselves."

Sometimes stars are carved out of players who didn't have three or four or five stars next to their names in recruiting rankings.

Woodson points to players like Johnson (now playing for the Buffalo Bills), who had only 12 catches and one touchdown before 2007, when he came alive for 1,041 receiving yards and 13 scores.

Or a player like Tamme (now with the Indianapolis Colts), who had five touchdowns in three seasons before accounting for 619 yards and six scores in 2007.

Woodson has been vocal about the potential star power of quarterback Morgan Newton. He sees a lot of himself in the junior from Carmel, Ind.

Woodson tries to tell UK's receivers to get ready for a fun ride with Newton.

"He's going to have a huge breakout year, and the players around him are going to help him as well," Woodson said. "He will help them make names for themselves."

Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, while more pragmatic than the youthful Woodson — who Sanders coached in that 2007 season — concedes there's potentially something special about this team.

"There are guys that have the potential to (be stars)," Sanders said. "As coaches, we're certainly pushing them to and hoping they do. Whether they do or not, that's the million-dollar question at this point."

Sanders does see some of the same 2007 similarities as Woodson.

"We went into 2007 with a lot of questions and a lot of guys stepped up," he said. "Guys gained confidence as the season went on."

'They expect to be good'

Neither Woodson nor Sanders is going to pretend that a repeat of 2007 — when the Cats finished 8-5, beat Top 10 opponents Louisiana State and Louisville and won the Music City Bowl — is imminent.

But neither is going to rule it out, either.

Nearly every player and coach seems to believe there's something about this team this season.

"You could see it this summer in the way we came together," said junior receiver Gene McCaskill, who returns after redshirting last season because of injury.

This summer is also when wide receivers coach Tee Martin started to sense something different about this team.

"I like the attitude we felt when we came back from vacation and those guys had been working here all summer," he said. "Their bodies had changed; their attitudes had changed. A lot of the new guys have come from winning programs. So they come in with a sort of confidence and swagger. I haven't been here long, but what I saw coming in, it's a little different than what's been here in a while. They expect to be good."

Life after Randall Cobb

Martin isn't going to tell his young freshmen receivers, many of whom could see playing time immediately, that they have potential star power.

He's trying to keep them humble.

"I don't call them by their names yet," he said during camp. "They're just numbers right now. They take that as a challenge to want to make themselves known, and I like that attitude."

Maybe the coaches are trying to keep the receivers humble like Cobb, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers.

It will be tough to replace the Cats' do-it-all player.

"There will never, ever be another Randall Cobb," said junior La'Rod King, the most prolific player UK has back on offense with five touchdowns and 478 receiving yards last season.

Phillips agreed.

"I don't know if anybody has had to replace a guy that did as much as Randall Cobb did for us," Phillips said. "He did both returns, he was a holder, played some quarterback, played some Wildcat, actually started there five, six games at the quarterback position, received. I mean, he did everything for us. He was one of the best leaders I've ever been around. I have not been around a guy that did as much as he did."

But there are returning receivers like Brian Adams, King and McCaskill, who believe they can help fill in some of the gap.

"I'd love to be one of those stars, and I'm working as hard as I can to be one of those stars," McCaskill said. "But I want everyone to be a star."

McCaskill and others are excited by what they've seen from the newcomers.

Adams specifically mentioned wideout Daryl Collins, one of the top players in Alabama as a high school senior.

"It's unbelievable what the kid can do on the field," Adams said. "He's got tremendous athletic ability, and we're real excited about what he can do for us."

Unfortunately for UK fans, they won't get to see what Collins can do until next year. The freshman was looking like a potential contributor this season until dislocating his right kneecap in practice last week. He will have surgery and miss the entire season as a redshirt player.

There are other freshmen with star power potential like DeMarco Robinson (a 5-10 receiver), who broke the Georgia state record for receiving yards in a season, or Rashad Cunningham (a 6-4 receiver from Mobile, Ala.).

"It's going to be a good year," said Adams, the sophomore receiver. "I'm not making any promises, but we're excited about the first game."

Having so many potential weapons will make UK's offense even more dangerous, Woodson said.

"That's going to be huge for (Newton) because now he's not just relying on one player, whereas last year the offense kind of ran around Randall Cobb," Woodson said. "Now Morgan's the guy the system runs on. He's either going to make plays with the ball or distribute the ball to all these guys and get their names out there."

But isn't it difficult to be an impact player as a freshman in the Southeastern Conference?

"Well sure it is, but you see it happen pretty regular," said Sanders, the offensive coordinator. "It takes someone pretty special to be a star at a young age, but most people around the league knew who Randall Cobb was after his freshman year. Most of the people in the league knew who Julio Jones was after his freshman year. It certainly can be done."

Competition in the backfield

Kentucky's ground game has just as many question marks as its air attack going into the opener against Western Kentucky.

Gone is Locke and his 2,618 career rushing yards. But several potential replacements are eager to run onto the scene.

There's sophomore Raymond Sanders, who had 254 yards and three TDs last season. There's junior CoShik Williams, who had four touchdowns last season, and sophomore Jonathan George, who earned the No. 2 tailback spot behind Sanders with his play in the spring.

But those players know there's some competition, especially from redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer out of Miami and true freshmen like Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.

"Everybody in my meeting room knows there's playing time up for grabs," running backs coach Steve Pardue said.

The running backs seem to have their own certain swagger. They have made fall camp one of the most competitive in recent memory for Phillips.

"One of the young guys mentioned to me trying to get a job," he said. "I'm hiring. ... I've got a position open at tailback. We lost a really good productive running back last season and we need to hire his replacement. We've got a lot of guys interviewing for it."

The coach is seeing stars and star potential all over the field, and not just the kind shaved onto the sides of a couple of players' heads.

"We could be special," Phillips said. "We've certainly got that potential."

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