Rich Brooks can guide an overturned boat back to shore and just shrug his shoulders, but trying to figure out how an inexperienced and largely untested football team is going to play scares him to death.
Brooks admitted at his weekly news conference Tuesday that he has a fear of the unknown, which means he probably has a severe case of the jitters as he prepares his University of Kentucky football team for its season opener at Louisville on Sunday.
Brooks thinks he'll have the best defense he's had in six seasons at UK, but beyond that he's similar to everybody else who'll be in the stands at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium or tuning in to ESPN: He has no idea what to expect or what will happen.
"Hell, yes, I have a fear of (the unknown)," Brooks said. "That's why I don't sleep very well. Even after I've seen it in games, I wonder if it's going to show up the next game. That's coaching. It's an interesting deal. You look at guys and you know what they're physically made of, but you don't know how they're going to respond to all the situations."
Quarterback Mike Hartline and center Jorge Gonzalez are two of the Wildcats who will not only be seeing their first significant game action but getting their first career starts. UK also will be throwing several true freshmen into the mix at receiver, and none of the three candidates to start at right guard (Brad Durham, Jess Beets and Stuart Hines) has ever started a game.
"For a lot of guys, this is going to be their first real experience of playing a lot or starting in a game," Brooks said. "It's on the road, it's going to be real noisy. It's always interesting to see if what happens in practice carries over to games. Practices and scrimmages are different. It'll be a different atmosphere and different situation than they've ever been in in their lives."
The only consolation for Brooks is that Louisville has just as many if not more unknowns than the Wildcats. Eight Cardinals will be making their first career starts, and their linebacking corps includes a true freshman (Dexter Heyman) and a pair of junior-college transfers (Antwon Canady and Jon Dempsey).
"They're in the same situation as us, so how those guys respond is the key to the outcome of the game," Brooks said.
Another new dimension for the Cardinals is their defensive coordinator, Ron English, who came over from Michigan. The UK offensive players said they have broken down plenty of Michigan film.
"We think we know what to expect, but he was at Michigan," UK offensive lineman Garry Williams said. "He might not do exactly the same things at Louisville, and we don't know much about their players, either."
Brooks said the offense made strides last week after struggling early in fall camp. But Brooks doesn't know for sure how Hartline will hold up under fire or whether his young receivers will be ready for prime time. With the status of junior DeMoreo Ford uncertain because of injury and the death of his brother last week, Dicky Lyons, Jr., who caught 56 passes and seven TDs last year, is the only receiver with any extensive game experience.
"It's always a concern over whether what you do in practice carries over to the game," Brooks said. "Receivers, they can shine or they can shy (away). I don't know. I think we have ability at that position, but I'm looking forward to it as much as you are to see how they're going to do."
Of course UK's plight doesn't seem all that bad when you consider that neither of the Cards' projected starters at receiver, Troy Pascley and Doug Beaumont, have caught a pass in a collegiate game.
"I'm confident in our receivers' ability," Brooks said. "Am I confident that (the receivers) are going to go out there and do everything right and make some great catches? That's why we've got to play the game. I'm sure there's a lot of that down the road, too, because at least we've got one guy who caught 56 balls. I don't know if they've got anybody who's caught many at all. I don't think they do."
Brooks does feel good about his team's talent level. As fearful as the unknown might seem, it's not nearly as bad as when he was trying to fight through NCAA probation with a short-handed roster.
"I've had years that I've known a lot less than I know about this team," Brooks said. "I've had a lot of years. I've had a lot more years where I had a lot more concerns than this year, because I know we have some good players."
Depth chart update
Brooks said that offensive linemen James Alexander and Stuart Hines and safety Marcus McClinton all returned to practice from various injuries on Monday. Ford also returned to practice after going home to LaGrange, Ga., to attend his brother's funeral.
Junior Calvin Harrison, who's been starting at free safety in McClinton's absence, is listed No. 1 on the depth chart for the Louisville game. At tight end, Maurice Grinter is bracketed at No. 1 with T.C. Drake.