Early in Coach Rich Brooks' Kentucky tenure, playing without his starting quarterback, best running back, best receiver and all-purpose threat, and best shutdown corner would have been a recipe for disaster.
But this year's Wildcats have been able to keep their heads above water at 5-4 despite all those injuries thanks to some decent work from some key replacement parts.
Quarterback Mike Hartline has missed the past four games with a knee injury. And while the passing game has been inconsistent, the Cats still managed to go 3-1 during that stretch thanks to a mixture of freshman Morgan Newton, junior Will Fidler and sophomore multi-purpose man Randall Cobb.
Senior cornerback Trevard Lindley also missed four games (ankle) while fellow starter Paul Warford missed two (thigh), but sophomore Randall Burden was extremely productive during both players' absences.
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"Our depth is better, and for the most part we've been able to respond with people stepping in and filling in for people who missed time," Brooks said.
UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said the program is at the point to where the expectation level for guys to step in and fill the void has become part of the culture.
"In the past if we had an injury, we were really down in production," Phillips said. "We've convinced our team if somebody gets injured, somebody has to step up. That's happened the last four or five years around here."
The offensive line is the one area that's managed to stay relatively healthy. The starters on the offensive line have missed a combined three games — right tackle Justin Jeffries, two (Achilles), and center Jorge Gonzalez, one (suspension). Still, true freshman Larry Warford has seen some decent backup time at guard.
As the injured players start to filter back into the lineup, Kentucky's two-deep depth chart should be in decent shape for the stretch run. Hartline should be back for Saturday's game at Vanderbilt as long as his knee holds up in practice. Lindley had a setback against Eastern Kentucky, but he is expected to play Saturday. UK's top two offensive weapons, Cobb and junior tailback Derrick Locke, are both good to go for Vandy. Brooks said Cobb (sprained thumb) practiced in a cast Tuesday but should be able to play in a splint or without anything at all in the game.
"He caught the ball as well as anybody with a cast on," Brooks said. "It was pretty amazing."
The EKU game basically served as an open date for for Locke and Cobb to heal some nagging injuries.
"Locke's body is fresher than it probably has been for the last six weeks," Brooks said. "And Cobb's shoulder and other areas that were bothering him have had a chance to settle down."
Some of the work by the young reserves bodes well for the future.
Freshman La'Rod King has added some life to the receiving corps the past two weeks. And with Locke out, another true freshman, Donald Russell, got some late snaps in the win over Eastern and broke off a 79-yard touchdown run. True freshman corner Martavious Neloms got a start at South Carolina and, while he gave up a pair of touchdown passes, showed some good things from an athletic standpoint.
Brooks resisted the temptation to play a handful of other freshmen, including defensive tackle Mister Cobble, who the coaches say has been impressive in practice. The decision was made early to play Russell, who had carried the ball in only two prior games (a total of 10 carries for 45 yards against Miami and Louisiana-Monroe). Russell and classmates Dakotah Tyler and Jonathan George, who are redshirting, are the future of the UK backfield after Alfonso Smith's eligibility expires this fall and Locke's the year after.
"It was great for my first touchdown to be 79 yards," Russell said. "I feel good about things now. You always want to be out there playing, but when they call my number I just get out there and try to show them what I can do. It worked out for the best."
Russell appeared to slow down near the end of his run and reached the end zone just out of the reach of an EKU defender, drawing some playful ribbing from Smith.
"He got the job done, but I probably would have left the guy in his tracks a little faster," Smith said with a laugh. "But it's a bright future for the running backs here. It'll be like when we had Rafael Little, Tony Dixon, myself and Locke all in the same backfield."
The more carries Russell gets down the road, the easier it'll be for him to finish off those long runs.
"After 50 yards my legs started getting a little heavy; I didn't know if I was going to make it," Russell said. "I'm just glad I scored."