John Clay: Kentucky offensive boss Sanders the same guy fans used to love

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 7, 2011 

One year, you're a hero.

Another year, you're a zero.

One year, you are Randy Sanders, the Kentucky quarterbacks coach who turned Andre Woodson into one of the nation's best passers.

Another year, you are Randy Sanders, the man responsible for Morgan Newton, who can't even crack the SEC's top 10 pass efficiency ratings.

One year, last year, your offense averages 427.8 yards per game, is fourth best in the SEC, 27th best in the country.

Another year, this year, your offense is averaging 255 yards per game and is ranked 118th out of 120 schools.

Only to look at him now, the goat looks just like the genius.

It's the same Randy Sanders, the Kentucky offensive coordinator who came to Lexington in 2006 as quarterbacks coach and was lauded for developing the likes of Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Dicky Lyons Jr. and Stevie Johnson.

The results are different, however. The fans are howling, just as they howled at Jerry Eisaman under Jerry Claiborne, Daryl Dickey under Bill Curry, Ron Hudson under Rich Brooks. Coordinators as scapegoats.

"It's not easy, I can promise you that," said the current offensive coordinator after a practice this week. "I'm used to scoring points and making yards and doing those things.

"It reminds me a lot of the 2008 season. We lost Andre and Stevie and Keenan and Jacob Tamme and Rafael and we had some new players playing. We went through some struggles, and we kind of found ourselves there for a little while, but there's a lot of similarities to that season."

Indeed, even after those skill-position stars departed, Sanders helped rebuild an offense that went from averaging 299 yards and 22.6 points per game in 2008 to 428 yards and 31.6 points last year.

It's the same offense. The same play calls. It's the same Sanders. It's his skill players who are different.

"From the get-go we've tried to do what we thought our personnel allowed us to do," Sanders said. "We maybe overestimated in a few cases, what we thought we'd be able to do, how some people would come along. Some of that has maybe been limited because of injury. Some of it has been limited for other factors."

Take Newton. He started eight games as a true freshman and won five. He started UK's bowl game a year ago. There is no way that the staff expected the junior to struggle through the first five games to the point where he would be benched in the second half last week at LSU for a true freshman.

"There's no question that some of the sacks have affected him a little bit," Sanders said. "I think some of the drops that he's had have affected him a little bit."

There is also no question that there isn't a Randall Cobb, or a Derrick Locke or a Chris Matthews on this offense. Replacements are needed. As yet, replacements haven't been developed, or found.

"I don't like to talk about the past or a past life," Sanders said, "but it wasn't something you had to deal with at Tennessee because you had more players waiting. It's a little bit of a new experience, 2008 and this year."

Ah, Tennessee. Sanders' critics point to his departure at Tennessee, forced out when the Vols' offense dipped after David Cutcliffe's departure. But Sanders' exit didn't produce a Tennessee resurgence. UT is 37-28 under three head coaches over the last five seasons.

So is recruiting the answer? Is it going to take a year or two to get the talent level back to where it needs to be? Or is there hope left this year?

"We need to add some more players," Sanders said. "I think some of our guys will continue to improve and get better. I looked out there last week (against LSU), and we're down 14-0, and we've got a true freshman backfield. You expect that the more they play, the more they'll be able to adapt and adjust."

Sanders has seen it happen before. He's been part of it. One year, another year. He's the one with the track record.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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