This time last year, Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders had to piece together a game plan with wire and duct tape.
His starting quarterback, Mike Hartline, was on the shelf with a knee injury, leaving the job in the hands of a true freshman, Morgan Newton. Outside of Randall Cobb, the receivers were unproven. Most of Sanders' play calls were simple: Get the ball to Cobb or Derrick Locke and hope for the best.
"We were limited," Sanders said. "We had an inexperienced quarterback, receivers who were still trying to learn the offense. We were basically just trying to get by."
Now, Sanders can't wait to get in the film room and draw up plays. UK has perhaps the most diverse offense in the Southeastern Conference, ranking second in the league in scoring (35.3), third in total offense and second in passing offense.
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What makes Kentucky unique is the variety of ways it can attack. The Cats have a back who can hit opponents for 100-plus yards when healthy in Derrick Locke. And teams have to plan for Cobb out of the Wildcat formation. But it's the passing game that has been the biggest upgrade. Sanders said the Cats have used 138 different passing plays, and Hartline and a vastly improved group of receivers are the biggest reasons for that.
Auburn's Cameron Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett might get more fanfare, but Hartline is throwing the ball as well as any quarterback in the league. His 1,791 passing yards rank second in the conference behind Mallett, and he boasts the SEC's best touchdown-to-interception ratio (13-3). He's also been at his best in big games, lighting up two top-10 teams (Auburn and South Carolina) for a combined 55-for-70 for 549 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
"Mike has played even better than you'd expect a senior quarterback to play," Sanders said. "He's really only made about two or three bad decisions all year. When you have a quarterback who's playing that efficient, it really opens up a lot of different things you can do with your offense."
Meanwhile, a receiving corps that didn't have the full trust of Hartline or Sanders last year has transformed into a big-play unit.
Cobb has matured into a complete receiver, and the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Chris Matthews has a clearer understanding of the offense in his second year out of junior college. The duo ranks in the top five in catches per game and receiving yards. Sophomore La'Rod King went as far to say that he'd take Matthews, one of the SEC's biggest revelations this fall, over Georgia's A.J. Green "any day of the week."
King has given the offense a third receiving threat. He had a career game against South Carolina with two touchdown catches, taking advantage of the attention placed on Cobb and Matthews.
"I'd rather them not pay attention to me so I can get the ball more," King said with a laugh. "Randall and Chris, Derrick Locke, those are good players, but we have other good players on this team. We just have to wait for our time to shine and when our name is called, make a play."
The emergence of more playmakers has helped keep Cobb in one piece because he doesn't have to do as much. While he's not as big a factor in the running game, his receiving numbers are up and his impact plays have remained.
"I've been telling everybody since fall camp that we were going to have a lot of weapons," Cobb said. "That's really helped me stay fresh. There were times around this time last year that I didn't practice because I was so beat up. Now I can get out there and help the guys out in practice and prepare."
The Kentucky offense is so potent that it hasn't skipped a beat despite Locke sitting out the second half against Auburn and missing the South Carolina game with a stinger. It's drawing comparisons to the Wildcats' prolific offense of 2007 that featured Andre Woodson at quarterback, Rafael Little at tailback, Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson at receiver and Jacob Tamme at tight end.
That team averaged 36.5 points per game, slightly more than this year's 35.3. Coach Joker Phillips said the 2007 offense had more speed and big-play capability at receiver. But this year's offense is more versatile and can move the chains. They also haven't been bogged down with penalties.
"There aren't quite as many big plays, but we've been a little more efficient than that (2007) offense," Sanders said. "Of course, Mike's been playing lights out, and we haven't been stopping ourselves with procedure and alignment (penalties) and false starts."
In comparing 2007 to 2010, Hartline said, "We sustain drives, we take time off the clock." Hartline was a redshirt freshman on the 2007 squad. "It's different, but the way we're scoring and moving the ball, it feels the same."
Locke officially out
Locke (stinger) has been officially ruled out of Saturday's game against Georgia. Phillips said he's hopeful Locke can return for the Mississippi State game. Senior defensive end DeQuin Evans (ankle, shoulder) is expected to play.
UK-Charleston Southern set for 12:30 kickoff
Kentucky's Nov. 6 home game against Charleston Southern will kick off at 12:30 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium.
The game will be televised live on a pay-per-view basis on participating cable systems in Kentucky, along with Dish Network and DirecTV. Details on cost and participating cable providers will be announced at a later date. Outside of Kentucky, the game will be available for pay-per-view through ESPN GamePlan.
Homecoming pep rally
The UK Student Activities Board and the UK Alumni Association will host a pep rally Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at Stoll Field on Avenue of Champions across from Memorial Coliseum. Joker Phillips and John Calipari will speak and there will be giant inflatable games for children and autograph sessions with current UK teams. Admission is free.