With an offense ranked No. 118 out of 120 FBS programs, Kentucky obviously misses the all-around playmaking of the departed Randall Cobb.
Yet as much as UK could use Cobb — the first-team AP All-American who gave up his final year of eligibility to turn pro — there is another ex-Cat Kentucky might miss even more, Joker Phillips says.
"Everybody talks about Randall; we've been studying this thing, and the guy who made a huge difference was Mike Hartline," the UK coach said Monday at his weekly news conference. "I know people won't like to hear that."
For whatever reason, Hartline did not win many popularity contests among the Kentucky fan base. But last season, the then-fifth-year senior quarterback threw for 3,178 yards and had 23 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions. This year, UK quarterbacks are completing only 49 percent of their passes and have six picks and six TD passes. Kentucky is dead last in the SEC in pass efficiency.
"It's hard to see 3,000 yards walk out the door," Phillips said of Hartline's departure.
Yet Hartline's statistical production is only part of what Kentucky misses in his absence, Phillips said. A season ago, Kentucky's quarterbacks were sacked only 19 times all season. This year, UK has already surrendered 21 sacks in five games.
Says Phillips: "Mike Hartline made a huge difference in getting our protections set, getting the ball out of his hand, getting the ball to the guys who made plays for us."
Last season, the Kentucky offense scored 30 or more points in five of eight SEC games and never fewer than 14 points in any league contest. So far this season, UK (2-3) scored 10 points against Florida and seven at Louisiana State.
In 2010, Kentucky "had three really good players," Phillips said, mentioning Cobb, Hartline and graduated running back Derrick Locke.
The speedy Locke "ran around the edge when we didn't really have the edge" secured through blocking, Phillips said. "We don't have that ability right now. And Mike Hartline is the guy who was probably the biggest loss of all."
Opening a 'Bookie?'
Kentucky's 1993 Peach Bowl team had a Pookie (Jones) at quarterback. Might the 2011 Cats end up with a "Bookie" under center?
In a drive to get some playmaking ability on the field, Phillips said, UK coaches will take a hard look this week in practice at true freshman Theltus "Bookie" (rhymes with Pookie) Cobbins.
The 6-foot, 187-pound Cobbins is a New Orleans product who has not yet played this season and was thought to be redshirting. With the UK offense needing a spark, Phillips said Cobbins would get meaningful auditions at both quarterback and wide receiver.
"We've got to see if he can provide some playmaking abilities," Phillips said. "Right now, that's what we've been lacking. We've been caught without a lot of playmakers, especially down the field."
Phillips said the UK coaches have to decide this week whether Cobbins would play a big enough role over the rest of this season to justify pulling a redshirt in the season's sixth game.
By reputation, Cobbins is a dual-threat who would seem more of a spread-option quarterback than the drop-back QBs (think Couch, Lorenzen, Woodson, Hartline) Kentucky has recently been known for.
"We recruited him as a quarterback," Phillips said of Cobbins. "He's definitely an athlete. We'll figure out if he's good enough to help us and help us this year. We're going to try him out at receiver and also some at quarterback. At the quarterback position, he's probably more a runner."
Phillips said defensive end Collins Ukwu (knee) remains out for this week's game at South Carolina. Tailback Raymond Sanders (knee) ran Sunday and might try to return to practice Tuesday if there is no swelling. Defensive tackle Mark Crawford (shoulder sprain) might miss practice Tuesday but should be able to play Saturday, Phillips said. Wide receiver Gene McCaskill (back) is questionable for Saturday. Backup center Sam Simpson (back) is out.
Asked whether he wishes quarterback Ryan Mossakowski had not transferred from UK, Phillips said, "I'm not going to talk about guys who left us. Why would I?"
Mossakowski would have been a redshirt sophomore at UK this year, but he transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College after he saw no action in the BBVA Compass Bowl (a game for which starting UK QB Mike Hartline was suspended) against Pittsburgh after last season.
After a sizzling start at Northwest Mississippi (3-2), Mossakowski has cooled. In five games, he is completing 58.8 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,659 yards (331 ypg) with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
In a 34-28 loss to Northeast Mississippi last week, Mossakowski threw for three touchdowns but was intercepted six times.