Kentucky football hoping change is for the better on opening night

Kentucky opens the 2011 football season Thursday night determined to prove it has improved since last season's 6-7 disappointment, but do the new-look Wildcats have what it takes to back up their Big Blue optimism?

jtipton@herald-leader.comSeptember 1, 2011 

Running back Raymond Sanders says he is nearly 100 percent after having arthroscopic knee surgery in the off-season.


Kentucky expects good things this football season.

"I don't worry about numbers," offensive tackle Billy Joe Murphy said of predictions the Cats will be only a fair-to-middlin' 6-6 team. "I want to be the most physical and most disciplined team on the field. If we do that, I think we can have a great season."

Western Kentucky, which plays UK in Thursday night's opener in Nashville, also anticipates good things. For WKU, that would mean a stark turnaround from last season's 2-10 record.

"I think we'll have a great team," star running back Bobby Rainey said. "I expect nothing less than a Sun Belt championship. That's the type of team I see."

Of course, athletes wear blue-colored — or in Western's case, red-colored — glasses in the pre-season. Starting with the opener, teams and fans alike begin getting a clearer view of what's in store for 2011.

Kentucky's abounding optimism springs from a new attacking defense and a veteran offensive line that could help ease a new set of so-called skill players onto the college stage.

But earlier this week, UK Coach Joker Phillips offered a sober-minded perspective on the opening game.

"This is a good game for us trying to see how much we've improved," he said. "I really think that we've improved a lot. But the game will be a barometer to see how much we've improved."

WKU Coach Willie Taggart echoed the sentiment. Yes, he thinks the Hilltoppers are much improved. But he made no bold proclamations when asked whether Kentucky would notice a different Western team than the one UK pummeled 63-28 last season.

"I hope so," he said this week. "Our guys got bigger and stronger and faster, and now it's time to go on the football field and do something. The thing I want Kentucky to say after the game is that this team was totally different than what they played the year before."

One thing for sure: Kentucky will seem totally different on offense. The Cats will run about the same offense, Phillips said, but a new quarterback gives any team a new look.

"I think the guy that we have pulling the trigger can stretch the field," Phillips said of new quarterback Morgan Newton. "I'm really excited to watch him play. I mean, I'm not trying to say things too fast, but some days you don't recognize him from the bowl game (that ended last season with a thud). He's that type of guy that has that type of command of the huddle, command of the ball."

UK has a veteran offensive line to protect Newton. But the rash of minor injuries this pre-season could not have helped the cohesion.

"We've had guys out almost every day," Murphy said.

While noting that the injuries gave backups the opportunity for more reps, Murphy was not sure whether the injuries might hinder the line play.

"I guess we won't know till game time," he said. "... I don't know how that works. Hopefully, we'll have that same chemistry."

On defense, Kentucky will try to show a better ability to contain the run. Rainey rushed for 184 yards against the Cats last season. That started UK toward a difficult-to-overcome deficit in yards rushing for the season.

When asked whether the opener served as a good test for UK's run defense, Phillips said, "Yeah. Definitely. Last year (Rainey) ran for about 180 yards. ... You cannot allow a team to rush for that many yards on you."

Assistant head coach David Turner, who doubles as defensive line coach, needed no prodding to recall Rainey.

"I think he's one of the best backs in the country, regardless of what league he plays in," Turner said. "I remember the third or fourth play against us, he took it around the corner and took it to the house. So that stands out in my mind."

Seventy-three seconds into last season's game, Rainey dashed 59 yards for a touchdown.

"He's good," UK safety Winston Guy said of Rainey, "and I'm pretty sure he's going to get some runs. But we're going to minimize from what it was last year.

"I'm not going to take anything away from him because he's a great player."

Guy spoke on Monday of "minimizing" Rainey, and by inference WKU. Starting with the opener, Kentucky must back up words with deeds.

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