UK football: 10 questions for the Cats

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2012 

Question: Will the offense be better?

Answer: It's nearly impossible for it to be much worse. Only two schools (Kent State and Florida Atlantic) averaged fewer than UK's 259.8 yards per game last season. Only six schools averaged fewer passing yards (135.6), and the Cats were 90th out of 120 schools in rushing yards.

So things will have to be better for UK, right? Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders is convinced that's the case, mainly because Kentucky returns all but one of its players (Matt Roark) at the skill positions, and several of the freshmen coaches had hoped would be playmakers last season seem to have matured into those roles now.

The main wrench in that theory is whether a relatively young, inexperienced offensive line can hold up long enough for plays to unfold the way they're drawn up.

Q: Will Kentucky's return game be more effective?

A: Much like the answer to the offensive production question, it's unlikely that UK's punt and kick return games could be any worse than last season, when the Cats were second from last in the nation with an average of 1.8 yards per punt return.

It looks like sophomore Demarco Robinson has the best chance to change the Cats' fortunes.

"I'll be shocked if everyone isn't happy to see Demarco Robinson back there," special teams coach Greg Nord said of the sophomore speedster.

Kentucky has several other options that have shown promise in fall camp, including adding true skill players such as running backs Raymond Sanders, CoShik Williams and Jonathan George to those teams.

Q: How will the defense be without its leading tacklers and leaders Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ronnie Sneed?

A: It's unreasonable to say that UK won't miss the conference's top two tacklers from last season (and now NFL players) in Guy and Trevathan. But defensive coordinator Rick Minter seems confident in the skills and abilities of his first-team defense, despite a mostly new secondary and all-new starting linebacker group.

He also has loads of confidence in the abilities of his defensive front, which could alleviate some of the pressure early as those other tiers get up to speed.

The bigger question might be what the second- and third-team players will bring. They're a young, inexperienced group that still has to prove itself.

Q: How will the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M affect Kentucky and the Southeastern Conference in general?

A: The Tigers and the Aggies just made the nation's toughest league even tougher. Based on pre-season media polling, both teams were picked to finish ahead of Kentucky. They're additional teams in a crowded second SEC tier trying to break through to the league's elite upper echelon.

As for this season, UK has to go to Missouri for the Tigers' homecoming game. It will be a difficult environment in what likely could be a pivotal game for the Cats.

Q: Will there be one primary running back, or will it be done by committee?

A: If there's one thing the SEC teaches it's the need for a deep bench, especially at that position. UK saw Raymond Sanders and Josh Clemons go down with injuries last season. Others had bumps and bruises, and former walk-on CoShik Williams finished out as the starter.

With all of those aforementioned players and Jonathan George back (Clemons is still a question mark with a knee injury), coupled with talented true freshmen Justin Taylor and Dyshawn Mobley, it seems UK's best option is by committee.

Each runner provides a different running style, which could benefit UK in the long run.

Q: Now that the streak has ended, can Kentucky start its own streak and knock off Tennessee a second straight time?

A: History says no. After all, the Vols beat UK 26 straight times before wide receiver-turned-quarterback Matt Roark (and a staunch defense) led the Cats to the unlikely 10-7 win at Commonwealth Stadium last season. This season the game goes back to Knoxville, where UK has only won 10 times in 55 meetings, and not since 1984.

But given that it's the last game of the season and one of the teams could be playing for everything and/or nothing, it's hard to know how it's going to go. Could one of the teams be playing for its coach's job? Could one of the teams be using this game as its "bowl" game? Anything can happen.

Q: Will freshman phenom Patrick Towles play this season?

A: As of press time, all signs pointed to UK wanting to redshirt the former Highlands star and gem of last season's recruiting class. Maybe the most telling quote of pre-season camp was when offensive coordinator Randy Sanders noted after a scrimmage that Towles probably saw "more defenses in the plays he got today than he probably saw the last four years of high school." If you have a solid quarterback who showed promise as Maxwell Smith did last season and in the spring, it seems smart to save Towles. No need to risk him getting injured or losing confidence when there are other options.

Q: Will there be fans be at Commonwealth Stadium this season?

A: Early season ticket sales numbers obtained by the Herald-Leader in late July were not good news for Kentucky, with numbers down some 27 percent from the season before and 37 percent from the peak in 2009.

The news from Louisville that UK returned more than 2,000 tickets to that rivalry game was telling as well. But a UK win at No. 25 Louisville would do much to put backsides back in the seats.

Q: How is Joker Phillips handling the hot seat talk, and does it negatively effect the team and recruiting?

A: If there is anyone uniquely suited to handle that, it's Phillips, who was a player on the 1982 team that went 0-10-1.

He's talked about walking across campus and hearing the comments and seeing the smirks.

He also understands how quickly fan perspective can change with victories and improved play. He's hoping there are enough of those to change the tide.

There was some hot seat discussion after last season's 5-7 campaign, but it didn't seem to have much of an effect, with Kentucky signing a full 25 players for a class rated No. 31 in the nation by Scout (although still 11th in the SEC).

Phillips likes to say players sign to play for "Kentucky," not for him. While that might be partly true, players also like to know what sort of situation they're walking into, so there probably will be some recruiting effect if there are questions near the end of the season.

Q: Will Joker Phillips be the head coach at Kentucky next season?

A: There is nothing easy about that question. Going into the season, he had the full support of the UK administration, specifically Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart, who hired him.

But there's no question football and men's basketball revenues support every other program at UK. A 30 percent drop in football ticket sales is not good for job security.

This summer, Barnhart told the Herald-Leader the decision's not going to be all about wins and losses. "You can gauge progress by the way you play the game and the results, there's a feel to it," he said. "I've been in it long enough to know if we're gaining ground or not."

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

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