The University of Kentucky still has two games left on its schedule: its regular-season finale at Tennessee on Saturday and a bowl game yet to be determined.
But with the Wildcats having an off week before the Vols and with bowl practices on the horizon in December, it's never too early to start looking ahead to 2009.
UK Coach Rich Brooks and his staff have been evaluating the younger Cats during the open date, and he likes what he's seen so far. The Wildcats had a scrimmage featuring the true freshmen and redshirt freshman on Thursday and will take the weekend off before resuming preparations for Tennessee on Sunday.
Brooks identified several redshirt freshmen who could skyrocket up the depth chart next fall. Perhaps one of the most impressive has been defensive end Collins Ukwu, a late signee who originally committed to Middle Tennessee State. The 6-foot-4 Ukwu arrived in Lexington last summer as a lean, sleek 207-pounder but is now a buff 243 pounds.
Two of UK's top three defensive ends (Ventrell Jenkins and Nii Adjei Oninku) are in their last year of eligibility, and junior Jeremy Jarmon could possibly test the NFL waters. That should mean plenty of snaps in spring practice for Ukwu. Brooks said he expects Ukwu to be a 'force' at the end next year.
"I think he's a guy you'll see step up and be a really good player for us," UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "He's got all the tools. He's got long arms, he's quick off the edge, and most importantly, he really wants to be a great player. It's important to him, so you know he'll put in the work."
Brooks said the future of the offensive line is in good shape with Matt Smith, Dave Ulinski and Trevino Woods, and Brooks and Brown tabbed defender William Johnson as another player likely to find himself in the rotation next year. Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder with speed and athleticism, could be in the mix at either outside linebacker or safety.
"He looks like a guy that could help us a lot next year; we've just got to figure out where," Brooks said.
Eight of Kentucky's 19 signees have played as true freshmen this season, including five at the receiver position (Randall Cobb, Aaron Boyd, Gene McCaskill, Matt Roark and Eric Adeyemi). The only freshman receiver not to play was E.J. Fields, who was impressive early but fell behind after straining his hamstring in fall camp. The wide receiver position has been a sore spot all season but the coaches decided not to use Fields this year.
"We just felt like he had gotten too far behind to burn his redshirt," UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said earlier this season about Fields. "But he can play. The thing about E.J. is that he didn't play any receiver in high school, so he's still learning the position. But he's only going to get better and better."
In addition to last week's practices, Brooks will use last Monday's junior varsity game as an evaluation tool. Freshmen who are currently redshirting weren't eligible to play, but a pair of true freshmen, Boyd and defensive lineman Chandler Burden, saw plenty of action. Boyd had a game-high seven catches for 107 yards, while a pair of redshirt freshmen, defensive back Greg Wilson and linebacker Ronnie Sneed, led the team in tackles with 10 and nine, respectively.
The JV game could also pay dividends not only down the road but also in the Tennessee game. With defensive end Jeremy Jarmon (knee) and tackle Ricky Lumpkin (ankle) expected to be out, Antwane Glenn, Shane McCord and Austin Moss all played extensively in the JV team's 55-28 win over Fork Union and could have a more prominent role against the Vols.
"A lot of guys helped themselves," Brooks said. "Getting game film on them, in which you can show them what they did right and what they did wrong and what they need to work on, will register a lot more than it does in a practice because it happened in a game situation."
Burden was perhaps the most physically impressive freshman on the team, and the coaching staff made a commitment to play him early in fall camp. But the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Burden has struggled to make much of an impact and hasn't been credited with any tackles in sporadic playing time. Brooks said that Burden still needs to brush up on technique and fundamentals and added that the staff may look at moving him inside to defensive tackle in the spring.
"He's still got to learn to use his hands better," Brooks said. "He's not quite as instinctive of a player as you'd like right now. Physically he's what you're looking for. Now we just have to bring him along fundamentally and get him more used to the defensive side of the ball. He's another guy that we have to figure out at what position he fits in best."