Sports

Mark Story: Suddenly, UK has receivers

CINCINNATI — Randall Cobb couldn't stop smiling.

Chris Matthews couldn't hide the swagger in his step.

Yet the happiest guy in Paul Brown Stadium in the minutes immediately after Kentucky's 42-0 pasting of Miami (Ohio) in 2009's season opener was one Mike Hartline.

Playing quarterback?

So much more enjoyable when you share the field with receivers who are actually productive.

"I can't tell you how much fun it was to be out there with guys who you know can go up and make big-time plays," Hartline said.

A year ago, especially after the season-ending injury to Dicky Lyons Jr., Hartline and Kentucky did not have that.

Before 41,037 sun-drenched fans in the home of the Cincinnati Bengals, UK receivers Cobb and Matthews showed that this year the new Cats do have some home-run ability on the perimeter.

Cobb, the triple-threat sophomore, had a career-best 96 yards receiving on seven catches, six in the first half. Included was a 27-yard TD toss from Hartline that put UK's first points on the scoreboard.

"Randall is what Randall is advertised to be," Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said. "... I was happy Randall got off in the receiving game as early as he did."

Showing his impressive versatility, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Cobb took direct snaps from center in Kentucky's version of the "Wildcat" formation three times.

On the first such play, he handed off to Derrick Locke, who ran untouched 16 yards for a touchdown. On the third such play, Cobb kept himself and ran 11 yards untouched for a touchdown.

Three plays from the Wildcat, two TDs in which no defender ever laid a hand on the ball carrier.

"That's a pretty good percentage, isn't it?" deadpanned Joker Phillips, UK's head coach of offense.

Cobb missed time in the pre-season because of a back ailment, and the conditioning time he lost might explain why he had to take an IV at halftime Saturday.

Still, having survived game one, Cobb reported that his back was none the worse for wear. "The back was fine, felt great," he said.

It wasn't conditioning but butterflies that were the issue for UK's other wide receiver. "It was all nerves at first," Matthews said.

It showed. The junior-college transfer had an early drop. Brooks said the wideout was not always lining up correctly.

Yet, as the game went along, Matthews said he could hear the voice of his father, Darell, inside his mind.

"My Pops would come to all my high school and junior-college games," Matthews said. "He would always say 'Calm down, and do what you have to do.' I could hear that voice, and it settled me down."

With 1:55 left before halftime, the 6-5, 210-pound Matthews soared above a Miami defender in the end zone on a fade pattern to haul in a 21-yard TD pass from Hartline.

That was exactly the kind of play Kentucky had no one physically capable of making a year ago. It was exactly the kind of play UK recruited Matthews from Los Angeles Harbor College to make.

The fade pattern that became his first UK touchdown was supposed to have been a different route, Matthews said.

"I busted the play," he said. "It should have been a slant."

Matthews — who does not lack for confidence — paused a moment.

"The slant was gonna go for a score, too," he said.

Matthews' final numbers, four catches for 57 yards, were not mind-boggling.

But they are impressive when you consider this: In their entire first seasons at UK, junior-college transfer receivers Aaron Boone, Chris Bernard and Steve Johnson caught 18, 14 and 12 passes, respectively.

Each then went on to have a standout senior year.

"With Matthews, we had to get him ready right away," Phillips said. "Some of the other jucos in the past, they weren't needed as much right away. Chris is."

One disclaimer: A year ago, Miami was a 2-10 team that gave up almost 33 points and 400 yards a game. The top four tacklers from that defense graduated. The RedHawks have a new coaching staff and had two true freshmen starting on defense Saturday.

So this wasn't exactly the Florida secondary that Kentucky scorched.

Still, a year ago, UK did not have the receivers to torch much of anyone.

Saturday, it did.

Which is why Randall Cobb deserved his smiles. Chris Matthews earned his swagger.

And Mike Hartline had every reason to be happiest of all.

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