UK football players hungry to prove productivity

Sanders says players accept his challenge

jtipton@herald-leader.comAugust 30, 2011 

Coach Joker Phillips compared Morgan Newton to past UK star quarterbacks Tim Couch and Andre Woodson.

DAVID PERRY | STAFF FILE PHOTO

Some may doubt that the University of Kentucky's football team can replace such a productive player as Randall Cobb. But Cobb himself apparently is not among them.

Raymond Sanders, the player likely to start in place of the departed Derrick Locke at running back in Thursday's opener, said Cobb offered validation earlier this summer.

"Be the best guy you can be," Cobb told Sanders. "Be better than me."That's saying something given Cobb's career of gobbling up all-purpose yards for UK.

But Sanders sounded Monday as if he will accept the challenge.

"I told him last year, 'I'm coming for your touchdown record,'" Sanders said Monday. "He said, 'I want you to.'

"That's one thing I keep in my mind. That keeps me going."

The departure of Cobb, Locke, Mike Hartline and Chris Matthews largely account for the gaping void in returning productivity from last season. As UK fans know all too well, players who accounted for 78 percent of the rushing yards, 92.5 percent of the passing yards and 68.9 percent of the receiving yards last season are gone.

"We're just hungry to show people," Sanders said of replacing so many standouts. "Hey, those guys were great. But we got recruited to come here and produce."

When asked at a Monday news conference about having to replace so many productive players, UK Coach Joker Phillips noted how his staff's brainpower can augment the new players thrust into starring roles.

"The thing that we have, we have schemes," he said.

Cobb figured in most of those schemes. He caught passes. He ran the ball. He passed the ball. He returned punts. He returned kickoffs. He held for kicks.

So who can Phillips call upon to fill so many roles so well? Not to mention replacing Locke, Hartline and Matthews.

"You've got to find them on Thursday night," the UK coach said of the game against Western Kentucky. "... There will be some guys that will catch your eyes, no question about that, or they wouldn't be in the two-deep. They wouldn't be in the two-deep if we didn't feel they were eye-catchers because they definitely caught our eyes."

Phillips stopped just short of saying UK eyes might spot another Cobb in Nashville.

When a reporter asked if the football gods could ever bless Kentucky with another Cobb, Phillips said, "Well, I hope like heck there will be (another Cobb). We said there would never be another Tim Couch. And Andre Woodson comes around. We said there would never be another Andre Woodson. And Morgan (Newton) comes around."

Phillips and offensive lineman Billy Joe Murphy vouched for Newton, who made the Southeastern Conference's all-freshman team two years ago and then mostly sat behind Hartline in 2010.

"We have to establish the run game (and) take a lot of pressure off Morgan and the passing game," Murphy said.

When asked if he meant Newton needed to be eased into the driver's seat of UK's offense, Murphy quickly said, "Not at all. We have all the confidence in the world in Morgan. I could turn it around and say the complete opposite: We could pass the ball and open lanes for Raymond."

As Murphy noted, football teams generally want to set up the pass with the run rather than vice versa.

"We have all the faith in Morgan," Murphy said. "He's our guy. He's our leader."

Sanders, the leading returning rusher (254 yards), acknowledged that he hears about Kentucky establishing a top-rate running game. Doubters question his size (5-foot-8, 205 pounds) and his speed.

"Everybody feels I can't hit the home run," he said, meaning break off a long run. "So that's one thing I want to prove. I was always a home run hitter."

Saying he'd run 40 yards in as fast as 4.3 seconds, Sanders noted comparisons he's heard to former UK home run threat Mark Higgs.

If that's not compelling enough, Sanders offered an ear-catching comparison for highly-regarded freshman runner Josh Clemons.

"I just see him as Mark Ingram," said Sanders in a reference to Alabama's Heisman Trophy winner of two seasons ago. "He's big (5-10, 201). He's hard to tackle. He also has speed. So he's going to be a nice weapon for this offense."

Maybe so. But Phillips reserved judgment.

"I really like our running backs," he said. "Do we have a difference-maker? I'm not sure of that yet. ... A difference-maker that can go the distance like we had last year. Don't know that yet. But we'll find out."

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