MEMPHIS — University of Kentucky wide receivers don't wear earplugs year-round, so they're certainly not oblivious to what's being said around them, as they've been seen as a major weak link for a Wildcat offense that has scuffled much of the year.
UK receivers will have one last chance to change their image Friday against East Carolina at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
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"We hear what people say and talk about it, but you can't get down about it," said junior E.J. Adams, the only upperclassman in the six-player rotation. "People are going to come down on you no matter what position you play. What we've got to do is stay strong and have each other's back, and eventually we'll get through it and start making plays."
It shouldn't be surprising that the receivers have struggled. Consider that three of UK's top pass-catchers from last year are in the NFL and a fourth, Dicky Lyons Jr., missed most of the year with a knee injury.
That left UK offensive coordinator/receivers coach Joker Phillips with: Adams, a converted defensive back in his first year as a full-time receiver; sophomore Kyrus Lanxter, who caught one pass last year, and four freshmen — Aaron Boyd, Eric Adeyemi, Gene McCaskill and Matt Roark.
Another freshman, Randall Cobb, was the Cats' most dangerous receiver when Lyons went out. But Cobb was inserted as the team's starting quarterback for the last four games of the season and will miss the Liberty Bowl with a knee injury.
"You usually don't want to count on five freshmen to be the focal point at the position," Phillips said. "It was probably too much to expect. You'd like to have freshmen come in to give a couple of guys a breather or play a small role."
The Wildcats will have to find a way to get some production out of a position that, when you take Cobb's and Lyons' numbers out of the mix, has just 61 catches and no touchdowns in 12 games.
Coach Rich Brooks said the group has made strides during UK's December bowl practices.
"I think they've done a much better job," Brooks said. "E.J.'s had some really good practices, McCaskill and Adeyemi have been impressive, and Boyd has been better on some days than others. They all are better than they were at the end of the season. We've had a lot of work with them, now we have to hope they'll go out and make some plays."
Former UK receiver Steve Johnson made a quantum leap in the practices leading up to the 2006 Music City Bowl. After catching just nine passes in Kentucky's first 11 games, Johnson had three catches for 67 yards in the bowl, and followed that up with a 1,052-yard, 13 TD season in 2007.
It would be unfair to expect that kind of meteoric rise from any of UK's young receivers, who don't have the strength or maturity that Johnson had coming out of junior college. But Phillips said he's optimistic.
"The light has come on for all of them," Phillips said. "It's just hard to tell how bright it is right now. They've made strides, but they still have a long way to go. They're still farther along than most of the guys we've had here at the same stage just because they've had more reps in practice."
Both spring practice and summer workouts will be crucial for the UK receivers because the rotation figures to look similar next year, although the Cats do have commitments from three receivers, including four-star junior college prospect Chris Matthews.
"The off-season is huge for these guys," Phillips said. "The main thing is they've got to get stronger, and with that strength will come more confidence."
Added strength could turn the 6-foot, 170-pound Adeyemi into a playmaker. There were a couple of occasions this year where he caught short passes that could have turned into long gains only to be taken down by arm tackles.
"You see Steve Johnson, who's a big guy, catch the same pass against Kent State last year and he just bounces off defenders," Phillips said. "We hope some of those guys will be doing that soon."
"Hopefully next year, I'll be able to catch that pass, break a tackle, and take it to the house," Adeyemi said.
But it all starts Friday, and McCaskill said the receivers can make a statement going into spring practice.
"I feel like this is a steppingstone for next year," McCaskill said. "If the receivers can come and play well and we can win the bowl game, that can set the tone."