Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks knew exactly where to turn when times got tough the past two seasons.
He knew he could count Andre Woodson getting hot and leading a quick drive downfield. He also knew that Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme and Steve Johnson would come up with key catches, Rafael Little would make people miss in the open field and Wesley Woodyard would make big plays while being the emotional leader of the defense.
"We didn't get down when things weren't going right," Brooks said of his last two UK teams. "We just kept plugging away and expected good things to happen, and most of the time they eventually did."
Woodson, Burton, Johnson, Tamme, Little and Woodyard are all gone, and Brooks knows everything won't be smooth sailing when his team kicks off at Louisville Sunday. The offense, breaking in a new quarterback and several new receivers, figures to have a rough moment or two. But unlike 2006 and 2007, Brooks doesn't know where the leadership and big plays will come from.
"It isn't always going to be positive stuff," Brooks said. "There's going to be things go wrong in the game, and how our team responds will be critical."
The defense has some logical candidates to help fill the leadership void left by Woodyard's departure — defensive end Jeremy Jarmon, cornerback Trevard Lindley, safety Marcus McClinton and linebackers Braxton Kelley and Micah Johnson.
Offensively, Brooks listed a trio of seniors — running back Tony Dixon, tackle Garry Williams and receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. as potential leaders.
"We know who looks like they're the leaders, but they need to do it when it really counts," Brooks said. "Sunday is when it really starts counting. Who knows who'll have to have the guts to make things happen in those situations. That's why we play the game."
Brooks said sophomore Mike Hartline will be a de facto leader even though he's making his first career start.
"They always look at the quarterback," Brooks said. "Even if he's the focus or not, he's the leader of the offense."
It will be interesting to see which team gets off to the fastest start. The Cardinal fan base will be looking for something to cheer about early and could get grumpy if U of L is slow out of the gate. The UK offense needs to build confidence and avoid falling behind early, which would force Hartline and the young receivers into catch-up mode.
"You never want to dig yourself a hole early," Brooks said. "I think we've got firepower, but whether it will perform as firepower in games is what we need to see."
Brooks said earlier this week that 6-to-8 freshman will play today, and with a new center (Jorge Gonzalez) snapping to Hartline, Brooks spent a couple of days in practice with simulated crowd noise.
Brooks is known to get antsy during game week, and after nearly a month of practices, scouting, scrimmages and simulations, Brooks will finally get to see the real thing.
"I'm very anxious to get on the field," Brooks said. "I'm tired of seeing us go against each other. I want to see us go against somebody else."
What he'll see, or who he'll see step up, is anybody's guess.