Frustrated Kentucky 'still searching' for offensive breakout

jclay@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2011 

Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Morgan Newton (12) stood in the pocket in the first half of the University of Kentucky vs. University of Florida football game on Saturday, August 24, 2011 at Commonwealth Stadium. Photo by David Perry | Staff

DAVID PERRY | STAFF

Saturday at Louisiana State will mark Kentucky's fifth game of the season, meaning a third of the year is now complete, meaning that the following week at South Carolina is the official halfway point of the football regular season.

"We're still searching," said Randy Sanders on Tuesday.

Sanders is Kentucky's offensive coordinator, and you could hear the frustration in his voice. Four games have been played. There is a date with the No. 1 team in the country this weekend. The defending SEC East champ is on the schedule after that. With those challenges ahead, Sanders hoped to be further along.

"It has been frustrating, no doubt," he said. "But I said all along we would be a work in progress."

The progress has been slow. Kentucky is 113 out of 120 teams nationally in total offense, averaging just 280.75 yards per game. The Cats are 90th in rushing, 110th in passing efficiency.

At this pace, in terms of total yards, this would be the least-productive UK offense since 2004 (275.5 yards per game), the second-least productive since 1996 (217.8).

But then Sanders and his fellow assistants might argue they have yet to put their real offense on the field, or at least the one they figured to have coming out of spring ball.

Predicted to be the strength of the team, the offensive line was burdened by injuries throughout fall camp.

Senior guard Stuart Hines did not start the opener. Senior center Matt Smith missed the first two games. Senior tackle Billy Joe Murphy sprained a medial collateral ligament in the opener and missed the next two games. Just this week have the five projected starters been healthy enough to practice together.

"It's nice to have everybody back together," Hines said this week.

At running back, opening-game starter Raymond Sanders underwent knee surgery after the season's second game. (He could return for the South Carolina trip.) His replacement, freshman Josh Clemons, strained a hamstring against Florida, though he is expected to start Saturday in Baton Rouge. If not, third-stringer CoShik Williams, a former walk-on, will get the call.

At receiver, the spread of dropped balls has caused the Cats to constantly shuffle the rotation. La'Rod King has been solid, making 19 catches for 276 yards through the first four games. But Matt Roark, E.J. Fields, Brian Adams, Gene McCaskill, Demarco Robinson and Aaron Boyd have all suffered ups and downs.

"It's been tough," said wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Tee Martin, the former Tennessee quarterback. "I want to know what's going to happen every single game and, last year, I had two guys in Chris (Matthews) and Randall (Cobb) that I knew what they were going to do. This year, I feel like I know what La'Rod is capable of doing; the (other guys) we've just got to get them consistent."

So if Martin doesn't know what he's going to get every week, how can the guy throwing them the ball know?

"It doesn't make it any easier," quarterback Morgan Newton said. "But it's making everybody better as players, learning how to deal with adverse situations."

Plus, the offense might be turning a bit of a corner. The 299 yards gained on Florida might not sound like much, but it was the most given up by the Gators so far this year. UK's 134 rushing yards was 63 more than Florida had allowed so far this season.

And the Cats are convinced they would have had more success had they not turned over the ball three times in the first six possessions.

"Whenever you have four turnovers, it's not pretty," Sanders said. "But there were a lot of things you could see we did improve on; we did get better. We had 11 guys doing the right thing for the most part."

And that's a step forward.

• Head coach Joker Phillips said receiver Gene McCaskill will not make the trip to LSU. He said that Josh Clemons and Martavius Neloms should both play.

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