Mark Story: UK needs wide receivers to emerge

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 5, 2013 

  • Key UK football dates

    6 p.m. Friday: Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium

    Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville

    Home opener: Sept. 7 vs. Miami (Ohio)

On Mark Stoops' first Media Day as Kentucky Wildcats head football coach, he fielded a perennial question: How many true freshmen will play this season?

The new UK coach said he wouldn't put a number on it.

"But, certainly, wide receiver is (a position) that jumps out at us right away that you would hope some of these guys could come in and contribute," Stoops said.

Amidst the enthusiasm over the return of the Air Raid to Commonwealth Stadium, the pre-season focus will fall on UK's three-man — Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles, Jalen Whitlow — quarterback battle.

Yet that position will be fine. Before his 2012 was wrecked by injuries, Smith averaged 322 yards passing in three games against teams that went on to earn bowl bids.

This year, he will reclaim the starting job, or someone will play well enough to beat him out. Either way, UK's quarterbacking should be solid.

The more pressing offensive concern for Kentucky is who will be catching passes in 2013.

Stoops lured Neal Brown, the Hal Mumme-era Kentucky wideout, away from his position as Texas Tech offensive coordinator to re-install an updated version of Mumme's pass-happy Air Raid.

To succeed with an offense that often spreads the field with four wideouts and uses outside screens and short slants to move the chains, a team needs two things.

1.) Wide receivers with enough explosion — remember Craig Yeast — to take short passes and turn them into long plays.

2.) A deep rotation of capable wideouts, eight to 10, to keep receivers fresh.

"When you play at a high tempo like we do, you can't play 80 snaps a game for an entire season," said Tommy Mainord, the new UK wide receivers coach. "It's too hard on the body."

Thing is, UK has no returning wideout who caught even one touchdown pass last season. Kentucky has only four scholarship receivers back from last year's 2-10 slog.

Yet Brown said he and Mainord have stared into this abyss and decided to see coaching opportunity.

"It's not too many times where you go into a situation where you have so much youth at wideout. It's really a blank canvas," Brown said. "We've got the opportunity to really mold these guys and develop them."

For Air Raid receivers, the chance is there to put up pinball numbers. In his three years running the offense at Tech, Brown's leading receiver caught at least 84 passes each year.

"They put the ball in the air," said Daryl Collins, UK's redshirt sophomore wideout. "We have to make plays. The ball has to be caught."

Of Kentucky's four returnees, junior Demarco Robinson (28 catches last season) was the most productive. Collins caught seven passes against Louisville, then only 10 more the rest of the year. Redshirt sophomore Rashad Cunningham did not catch a pass last season.

The new UK staff seems high on true sophomore A.J. Legree (12 catches last season). "I think A.J. Legree has great leadership capabilities and the work ethic and everything," Brown said. "But to be a leader, you've got to produce. I really believe he's going to this year, but he hasn't yet."

The wideout newcomers Stoops alluded to include three true freshmen: former Franklin County star Ryan Timmons; Florida products Alexander Montgomery and Jeff Badet; and junior-college transfer Javess Blue.

Timmons, a high school state sprint champion who turned down football scholarships from Florida and Ohio State, thinks similarities between the UK offense and the system at Franklin County give him an edge.

"It's exactly the same," he said. "There's just different words they (use to) call the plays. I'm very comfortable."

Blue spent this summer working to get academically eligible. He did not report to Lexington until 5:30 p.m Friday. Still, asked how quickly he can pick up the UK offense, Blue snapped his fingers. "As quick as the snap of the fingers, I'm on it," he said.

The encouraging news for UK backers comes from history. In 1997, when Mumme first installed the Air Raid in Lexington, he, too, inherited a receiving corps that had produced little the season before.

When given a chance to make plays, it turned out that Kio Sanford (from five catches in 1996 to 36 in '97), Kevin Coleman (seven to 52) and Yeast (26 to 73) could do so.

If Stoops and crew are to defy the gloomy pre-season prognostications and pull a first-season surprise, the current Kentucky wideouts need to produce another such breakthrough.


Key UK dates

6 p.m. Friday: Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium

Season opener: Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville

Home opener: Sept. 7 vs. Miami (Ohio)

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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