University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has put his freshman receivers on notice: Saturday's game against Norfolk State begins what he termed a "three-week evaluation period" before the Southeastern Conference schedule.
It was no secret the UK offense would count on several freshman receivers to play major minutes this season, and Gene McCaskill, Eric Adeyemi, and Matt Roark all got their feet wet in Sunday's 27-2 win over Louisville.
But the freshman who made the most impact was Randall Cobb, who spent most of fall camp at quarterback.
Phillips will evaluate their performance against the next three opponents: Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee State (Sept. 13) and Western Kentucky (Sept. 27). The Cats open the SEC portion of their schedule on Oct. 4 at Alabama.
"We'd like to find out how those young kids are going to respond," Phillips said. "We've got to find out which ones can help us and feel comfortable with them."
None of the freshmen started against Louisville, and, not surprisingly, each had his struggles. Senior Dicky Lyons Jr. and junior E.J. Adams were the starters, with Cobb and sophomore Kyrus Lanxter the top reserves. McCaskill did have one catch for 10 yards.
Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks was critical of the group as a whole, veterans included, for their lack of blocking, and some of the newcomers had issues with route-running and drops.
The young receivers could get a boost soon with the return of Aaron Boyd, who was cleared for contact this week after missing most of fall camp with mononucleosis. While Brooks has been non-committal about Boyd's availability, there's a chance he could make his season debut on Saturday.
Boyd completed his first practice in full pads on Wednesday. His conditioning isn't up to par yet, but Phillips said Boyd looked as if he could help the Cats immediately.
"Our mind-set is to play him this week, and if we play him this week, we've got to play him the next two to three weeks, Phillips said. "If he plays five to 10 snaps, he's got to look like he can help us for those five to 10 snaps. He's a little behind, but we've got to do some things to give him a chance to have some success. We've got to get him in the game if we think he can help us."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Boyd was a four-star prospect out of Henry Clay and was the highest-ranked member of UK's recruiting class. He said his throat started bothering him about two weeks before the start of fall camp, but he took some over-the-counter medicine that alleviated the problem. Boyd said he started to feel fatigued the week camp started, and he was diagnosed with mono the day before the Cats were to have their first practice in full pads.
That was frustrating news for Boyd, who attended most of Kentucky's spring practices and worked out with the team over the summer. There's still a chance he could be held out this season, but he said he's ready to jump in if called upon.
"I wasn't expecting to sit out; I wanted to make an immediate impact," Boyd said. "But redshirting isn't a bad thing. It would actually make me better academically and as a person. If I have to take that route, I'll take that route. But it is important to me to try and help this team down the stretch in the SEC.
"Most of the passes that were dropped, I can make those plays, and I want to make those plays. Nobody's perfect. Everybody drops balls; that's a part of the game. But I feel like I can come in and make a big contribution."
Whether or not Boyd plays, Cobb will probably play more at receiver. Cobb led the team with three receptions for 31 yards against Louisville, and as long as sophomore quarterback Mike Hartline can manage the offense, Cobb's athleticism is probably needed more at receiver.
"He'll be in some of our two-receiver sets," Phillips said of Cobb. "He's our second-best receiver right now, so we've got to get him in the game."
With Lyons, Cobb, Adams, Lanxter and junior DeMoreo Ford set for the rotation, there might not be room for all of the true freshmen.
"We can't take 10 receivers on the road with us, so one or two of them might get left behind if they're not keeping up," Phillips said.
Boyd focused on learning the offense over the summer, and he says he's not far behind. And while Boyd is not in peak physical condition, Phillips noted that his body is fresh from not getting beaten up in practice.
"He looks good," Phillips said. "His legs are fresh; he's a big body, catches the ball real well, and for the most part he knows what's going on."
"I'm doing a lot better than expected," Boyd said. "It doesn't feel like I've missed a lot. It feels like I'm on track and haven't missed a beat."