With an offense that featured a first-year starting quarterback and five true freshmen in the rotation at wide receiver, getting a simple play called could be an adventure for Kentucky last season.
"It seems like everybody panicked when a play was called," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said. "It was almost like guys were hyperventilating, and rightfully so. They were babies."
While too much can't be read into UK's 42-0 win against an overmatched Miami (Ohio) squad in this year's season opener, the Kentucky offense looked like a well-oiled machine compared to the jumbled mess it was at times last year.
Quarterback Mike Hartline is a year older and wiser, and those receivers that Phillips used to refer to as babies now have a little hair on their chests. Instead of constantly checking to make sure guys are where they're supposed to be, Phillips can focus on schemes. As a result, Kentucky committed just three penalties and had no turnovers against the RedHawks.
"This year everybody's calm, everybody's where they're supposed to be at. If a check is made, they're quick to understand where they're supposed to go. It's easier for them to process things," Phillips said. "And that makes it a lot easier for me to call plays. It was hard for me to see adjustments and see schemes that were happening because I was trying to figure out if a guy was lined up right. It was a lot more relaxed for me."
Hartline is also more comfortable. Phillips said that in the season opener at Louisville last year the staff had the whole offense in place for Hartline but had to scale back after the team struggled in the early part of the season. Still, many perceived that Hartline was being asked not to screw up and lose the Louisville game rather than to make plays to win it after he went 16-for-31 for just 147 yards passing while UK rode two defensive touchdowns to a 27-2 win.
"You don't want to come out and say that, but at the same time, it kind of was that," Hartline said. "It was the first time starting in a hostile environment, and you want to do everything you can to put your offense in the best position to win without messing up."
The offense UK came out with against Miami featured Hartline slinging the ball downfield to receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. Hartline's completion rate was a solid 67 percent, and while he completed just two more passes than he did in last year's opener against U of L, he had 73 more passing yards.
Hartline has earned more freedom with solid play.
"There is more responsibility," Hartline said. "If I see a different scheme or there's another play I want to get in, I can do that. They just want me to get us in and out of good plays."
Another element that has made life easier for Phillips is Cobb, who is relatively inexperienced at wide receiver but is starting to emerge as one of the brightest young wideouts in the league. Cobb is football savvy enough to move all over the field at any point in the game, including playing quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
"The reason he's special is that he's so smart," Phillips said. "He was one of the guys who was calm and didn't hyperventilate when we called a play last year. We can do things and make adjustments with him in the middle of a game. He's that kind of guy. We know we have to get the ball in his hands, and it's fun trying to scheme up stuff for him. There's a lot of things we can do with him."
Phillips said, as UK continues to progress, more no-huddle will be added and the plan of attack will look similar to the one Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little, Jacob Tamme and company ran so successfully during the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
"We're starting to go back to that when we went a little bit more no-huddle and had a lot more time to operate at the line," Phillips said. "We want to run more of our offense from the line of scrimmage, but we had so many guys last year who were new with signals, and four of our receivers were quarterbacks in high school. We're much better this year."
The "Cat Walk" will take place at 9:45 a.m. in front of Gate 1 Saturday. Team buses will stop on Jerry Claiborne Way in front of the Ronald McDonald House.
Game programs free
UK football game programs are now available free of charge. The program, now called "The Kentucky Kickoff Playbook," will be available outside the stadium gates.