Offensive coordinator Sanders expects more from Kentucky after disappointing 2011

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 2, 2012 

If Randy Sanders is worried, he doesn't show it.

In a recent interview, Kentucky's offensive coordinator casually leaned back in his chair, smiled easily and said without hesitation:

"I am much more comfortable this year than I was last year. It doesn't mean we're going to be great, but I do think we'll be much better than last year."

After 20-plus years in coaching, Sanders knew last season was going to be difficult.

"In a lot of ways I tried to say it last year without just coming out and saying it," he said.

He used words like "difficult" and "frustrating" to describe the 2011 season that saw the Cats' offense stumble back to the days when UK was fresh off NCAA probation.

The numbers were enough to make any offensive coordinator nauseous, especially Sanders, whose team averaged 6.1 yards a play (second in school history) and scored 406 total points (third in school history) one season before.

Last season, UK managed to score just 21 offensive touchdowns, five fewer than it scored in the air (26) or on the ground (25) the season before. Playmakers like Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline and Derrick Locke, as well as Kentucky's two leading receivers, were gone.

"Last year we went into the season with so many new guys playing or put into roles they'd never been put in before, we really had no clue what to expect," he said. "There wasn't very many times we got what we expected."

There were times — thanks in large part to a rash of injuries and youth — they got even less than they expected.

Kentucky's 259.8 yards per game last season was the fewest of this decade, lower even than 2004 (275.5), when a team feeling the effect of probation finished 2-9.

For fans of the program, the drop must have felt like a bad amusement park ride, watching the team go from 427.8 yards a game (second highest of this decade) to last season's total.

That 6.1 yards per play the season before fell to 4.1 yards a play (lowest in a decade).

The Cats' 135.6 passing yards per game was the worst in a decade, as were the 4.8 yards per pass and the 9.5 yards per catch.

Sanders saw his young offense stumble against Western Kentucky in the season opener, managing just 190 yards of offense in a 14-3 victory.

The early offensive struggles, combined with the injuries, were a tough mental hurdle for some, senior center Matt Smith said.

"It surprised us when we came out to play and we weren't as good as we thought we were going to be," he said at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

Those struggles had UK back on its heels almost from the start.

"Guys lost confidence," Sanders said. "The team kind of lost confidence early on. That's one thing we played with the year before."

Sanders adds with confidence: "We were a better team than we ever played like last year."

Knowing that is knowing that this season will be better, the offensive coordinator said.

He believes in this offense, as does Phillips.

"Our schemes have been successful, so you can't say it's the scheme," the head coach said. "They do not always grow up as fast as we as coaches want them to. The thing we have to do is they take it from the practice field to the game field."

Confidence, Sanders assured, comes from "having some success, knowing what you're doing, what to expect."

The offensive coordinator believes Kentucky has that this season, with all but one of the Cats' skill-position players back and some depth at those positions.

The only key loss at those positions is wide receiver Matt Roark, who helped engineer the win over Tennessee at quarterback to end last season.

"This year having everybody back, I expect them to be better," Sanders said. "I expect them to be a year older, a year more mature, a year stronger. Just the fact that they're returning doesn't solve all of the problems, but at least they know what to expect on Saturdays and what their roles will be. It's easier to plan when you know what you're going to get."

The Cats' leading receiver from last season, La'Rod King (40 catches, 598 yards, seven touchdowns), is back. The coaches say they will have many more options when the season opens at Louisville, seeing big things in the spring from players like sophomore DeMarco Robinson as well as several redshirt freshmen.

The wide receiver spot was frustrating for UK last year because of the youth.

"Last year you'd see great things on the practice field from somebody, but they'd disappear on Saturdays," Sanders said. "So we had no idea what we were going to get week to week. We'd have one guy with seven catches one week and then disappear for the next two games."

Four of UK's top rushers from last season are back, and the coaches are excited about freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor adding to what Phillips called "one of the deepest positions" for the Cats this season.

There are options at quarterback, with sophomore Maxwell Smith looking like the best of those as camp opens on Friday. Whoever calls the plays will be doing it behind a relatively young line.

There are few places to go but up offensively after last season, the one that left Sanders "with a bad taste in my mouth for six months."

It wasn't palatable for UK's players either, Larry Warford said. The senior lineman said fans will see changes on the field because Kentucky has made some key changes in the locker room.

"This is the most focused team I've seen in a while," Warford said. "There used to be little cliques, where this group would hang out with this group. It's not like that anymore. We're all one team. The chemistry is so much better. Everybody's not afraid to call people out if they're doing something wrong or doing things that could hurt the team."

Maybe that's why Sanders doesn't seem worried.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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