Kentucky's offense goes back on the offensive

John Clay
John Clay

When it comes to the Kentucky offense, last fall brought a decline and fall.

The plunge was predictable. A program doesn't replace Andre Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme in a finger-snap.

If offensive firepower was Kentucky's most delightful feature in 2006 and 2007, it suffered a cyclical descent in 2008.

And for 2009?

Come on up for the rising.

"I've said it many times, and it's even more emphatic at this stage," said Rich Brooks after a recent practice, "it's light years better than it was a year ago at this stage."

The head coach issues the mandatory disclaimer — "We haven't played a game yet, so we haven't proven anything," he said — but a palpable feeling of optimism has penetrated the Cats' camp concerning the offense.

Last year's unit lost nearly 150 total yards per game off the year before. An average of 443 dipped to 299. But this year's group has a year's experience, plus notable newcomers.

"We've made a lot of strides in making plays. That's the thing we've done," said Joker Phillips, the team's head coach for offense. "Last year we didn't make a lot of plays. We had guys running busted routes. I think everybody knows where they're supposed to be at, and where they're supposed to be at on time. Then we've got guys making plays."

New guys. Junior-college transfer Chris Matthews is tripping the fall camp gush gauge. He's a high-rising wide receiver for an offense that wants to rise. Matthews is 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, tough, with a father who's a Los Angeles cop.

"Chris Matthews has come in here and made as many plays as any guy I've been around," Phillips said. "I think he has upped the intensity of the rest of the guys. He and La'Rod King could be two of the most physical guys I've ever played with."

King is a 6-4, 190-pound rookie receiver from Radcliff earning a variety of early raves. The former North Hardin star has been a high-torque highlight, part of pack improvement that has no doubt helped holdover quarterback Mike Hartline.

"First thing, Mike's better, no question about that," Phillips said of his junior leader. "Before you say anything about the outside players, Mike is a better football player today, and he ought to be. I'd be upset if he wasn't."

Yet contributing to Hartline's struggles last year were the wide receiver struggles. Blown routes. Dropped balls. Miscommunications. A sheepishness set in to the passing game. Doubt.

"When he throws the ball and the guy starts making a play for you, he begins to trust them," Phillips said. "We've made more than our share, and that's all you can ask for."

In truth, it's more of a requirement.

"We have some good receivers out there who can stretch the field and stretch the defense," said senior running back Alfonso Smith. "It's going to keep the safeties out of the box, man. That's what we need. It's going to have the linebackers dropping back, thinking it's a pass when it's a run."

And an improved running game is a must. The 2007 offense averaged 155.5 yards per game on the way to eight wins. Last year's group fell to 127.5 rushing yards per game, ranked 81st in the nation, and was forced to claw its way to 7-6.

"We've got to run the ball better than we have," said Phillips, "and we will."

"Everything works together," said Smith.

When it comes to this offense, rising optimism reigns.