MEMPHIS — The University of Kentucky football program made history by winning a bowl game for the third consecutive season with Friday night's scintillating 25-19 win over East Carolina in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
The Cats will try to add to the record book in 2009 when they go for a fourth straight bowl bid.
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The seniors wrapped up their careers with a 26-24 record over the past four years, and they see no reason the Wildcats program can't continue the momentum.
"The shape things are in right now, this program expects to go to bowl games every year," said senior linebacker Braxton Kelley. "And eventually Kentucky will challenge for an SEC title."
As for personnel, the most pressing issue will be the futures of juniors Trevard Lindley, Jeremy Jarmon and Micah Johnson, who are all gauging their NFL Draft status. All three players said after the game that they will make decisions after receiving their evaluations, which should come sometime in the next week. The deadline for declaring for the NFL Draft is Jan. 15.
Those decisions loom large in projecting the strength of the 2009 Wildcats defense, which had its ups and downs this year but was still the best of the six-year Rich Brooks era.
The Cats are already losing six senior starters: defensive linemen Myron Pryor and Ventrell Jenkins, linebackers Johnny Williams and Braxton Kelley, cornerback David Jones and free safety Marcus McClinton.
If all three underclassmen leave, the only returning starters would be junior tackle Corey Peters and three strong safeties who rotated as starters: juniors Ashton Cobb and Calvin Harrison and freshman Matt Lentz.
But the Wildcats showed Friday that they have some promising young players who can help fill the void. Redshirt freshman Randall Burden replaced an injured Lindley in the second half and had two pass breakups, and true freshman safety Winston Guy also saw extensive action.
The coaching staff is also high on a pair of true freshmen who could rocket up the depth chart — linebacker Danny Trevathan, who saw limited action, and cornerback Cartier Rice, who was redshirted.
"These guys are learning," Brooks said. "The good news is that they're learning with bowl victories in the post-season. We have a talented group of young players, and if they just follow examples set by the seniors in work ethic, they'll get things right. The seniors have taught these guys what they need to do and how they need to do it."
The offense loses only two senior starters, left tackle Garry Williams and tailback Tony Dixon, but there are plenty of question marks, with quarterback likely to be the most talked-about position in the off-season.
Sophomore Mike Hartline got a leg up going into spring practice with a solid Liberty Bowl performance, and the coaches will have to figure out the best role for freshman Randall Cobb, who showed promise at both quarterback and wide receiver. UK has commitments from two highly touted high school quarterbacks, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski.
Newton will probably be given an opportunity to compete for the job. Mossakowski's status is uncertain after he recently underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
"We have spring practice, the summer and fall camp to sort all of that out," said UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. "I know one thing: we'll have competition, and that's what you want."
Running back could be an area of concern, as junior Alfonso Smith is the only player who is certain to be on the field in 2009. Sophomore Derrick Locke is still recovering from a serious knee injury, and sophomore Moncell Allen was academically ineligible for the Liberty Bowl. Kentucky is still trying to add another running back or two to its 2009 recruiting class, and it's not out of the question that a true freshman could crack the rotation next fall.
After a season filled with inconsistency and little production, the wide receivers showed signs of life in the Liberty Bowl. Sophomore Kyrus Lanxter had five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown. Freshman Gene McCaskill had three catches for 64 yards.
"That's something those guys can build on," Phillips said. "The key is for them to work hard this off-season and continue to get better, because we're going to be relying on those young guys even more next year."
UK returns its top three tight ends (Maurice Grinter, T.C. Drake and Ross Bogue) and most of the offensive line. Nine of the 11 offensive linemen listed on the Liberty Bowl depth chart are due back next season, and redshirt freshmen Matt Smith, Dave Ulinski and Trevino Woods will jump in the mix.
Phillips spent most of the year trying to mix and match the right pieces in the right places, and he expects the puzzle to fit together more naturally in 2009.
"I can remember when (2007 seniors) Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little, Jacob Tamme and those guys took their lumps," Phillips said. "But by the time they were juniors and seniors, they were having success against everybody in the SEC. We're hoping these young guys we have now can follow the same pattern. I know they've gotten more experience and reps in practice than Andre, Jacob, Keenan and Rafael did when they were freshmen."
The 2009 non-conference schedule is once again manageable, as Kentucky hosts Louisville, Eastern Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe and a yet to be determined opponent. In the SEC, UK plays Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee at home and travels to South Carolina, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia.
"Just keep winning," Kelley said. "That's what last year's seniors told us, and that's what we're going to tell next year's seniors. Eventually people will realize that Kentucky football is on the map."