The past few years, the Kentucky football team had plenty of respected locker-room leaders such as Keenan Burton, Wesley Woodyard, Andre Woodson and Jacob Tamme to keep things together during adverse times. Those same players helped guide the Wildcats out of NCAA probation to back-to-back eight-win seasons and Music City Bowl championships.
But now Woodyard, Burton and Co. are gone, and the Wildcats are trying to pick up the pieces after a humiliating 63-5 loss at Florida last weekend. With a must-win game on the horizon at Mississippi State this weekend, UK Coach Rich Brooks is looking for leadership, but it's been a struggle at times. Brooks called the leadership on this year's team "good, but not great."
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"That's coaching," Brooks said. "You go through teams where leadership is not an issue, and you go through teams where leadership is more of an issue, and you go through teams where the leadership is pretty good, but not where you want it to be. This year, ours is pretty good, but it could be better."
Mississippi State Coach Sylvester Croom can relate to what Brooks is going through. Croom didn't lose nearly as much production from last year's eight-win team as Brooks did from his. But Croom said that a lot of leadership went out the door with the 13 players who departed.
"We lost 13 guys, and athletically we probably replaced them with better people," Croom said. "But we lost a tremendous amount of leadership in that group. They were great on and off the field and respected in the locker room. As a group, they were united on everything. They policed the football team. They set the tempo at practice everyday,"
UK junior running back Alfonso Smith said that many players have tried to step into a leadership role, but said without any clear-cut, identifiable leaders that it's still a work in progress.
"Everybody's trying to figure it out and listen to different people, and it's kind of hard to not have those people like Wes and Keenan," Smith said. "Now we have to take it upon ourselves to step up and be leaders. I feel like I'm a veteran, too, so I have to take it upon myself."
But most of the Kentucky players said this week that they don't believe a lack leadership is a major issue and pointed to senior linebacker Braxton Kelley, junior linebacker Micah Johnson, junior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon and even true freshman quarterback Randall Cobb as team leaders.
While acknowledging the leadership that Woodyard and Burton brought, fifth-year senior Shomari Moore said the team misses their production more than anything else.
"I don't think it was too much of what those guys said that depicted our success last year; it was their play," Moore said. "You can talk all you want, but if you don't progress on the football field it's not going to happen. We have enough guys talking. We have enough vocal leaders. Now we need guys to step up and play."
One of the low points of Burton's UK career was a 49-0 loss to LSU two years ago. As team leaders, Burton said he, Woodyard and Woodson stepped up and took accountability after the game, and that helped UK win five of its final six games.
"Instead of letting the media and fans blame the coaches, we put it on ourselves," Burton said. "We just tried to keep the negativity down and not let it get into the locker room."
This year, the UK offense has struggled while the defense has tried to carry the team on its back. It was the opposite during the Burton/Woodyard era, but the close relationship between those two players prevented any major rifts or excessive finger-pointing between the two units.
"The thing with us, me and Wes were the offensive and defensive captains and we were best friends," Burton said. "We kept our practices competitive and we got after each other and guys were excited and fed off that."
Burton said that the offense needs a leader to step up in order for the unit to develop an identity. He thinks that could be Cobb, a talented true freshman who will make his first career start at quarterback this week.
"The important thing is for them to rally behind Randall because he is the guy," Burton said. "I've talked to him a lot, and he's very humble. He's going to play his role, and that's what this team needs. Randall understands and looks at it as a responsibility to help his team win."