After watching his special teams kick off during fall camp and in the season opening 42-0 win over Miami (Ohio), Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks has accepted the inevitable: Tim Masthay isn't walking through the door.
Masthay was one of the Wildcats' most valuable weapons the past few seasons. His booming kickoffs helped keep the dangerous return men of the Southeastern Conference at bay and often allowed UK to win the field-position battle. Masthay had touchbacks on 60 of his 212 career kickoffs (28.3 percent), including a 23-for-60 success rate (38.3 percent) last fall.
But Masthay's eligibility expired after last season, and now, when UK kicks off, Brooks just holds his breath and prays. Lones Seiber kicked off seven times against Miami with none of them coming close to the end zone.
Kentucky has signed a kicker for next season, Joseph Mansour from LaGrange, Ga., but for now, the Cats will have to make due with Seiber and Ryan Tydlacka, neither of whom possesses Masthay's leg strength.
"We are what we are, folks," Brooks said. "We all of a sudden aren't going to have a guy kicking it out of the end zone or hanging it 4.2 because, right now, we don't have that. I can't talk about recruiting, but that will be solved next year. This year, we have what we have."
Miami didn't have the explosive return men to make the Cats pay for their short kickoffs, but UK won't have it so easy this week. Louisville senior Trent Guy ripped off a 100-yard kickoff-return TD against UK two seasons ago, and that was with Masthay kicking off. He also had a 95-yard return for a score against Memphis last season and averaged 33.3 yards on three kick returns with a long of 40 in Louisville's season-opening 30-10 win over Indiana State.
Brooks said the kickoff coverage unit will compensate for the short kickoffs.
"We have to cover well and give people different looks, if you will, and the pressure is squarely on our coverage guys and, in our first game, our coverage guys responded extremely well," Brooks said. "Going forward, they're going to have to respond a lot better because the returners are going to be much better, and we're going to see that first-hand this week. So, if we can get through this week, it will make me feel a little bit better, but I promise you I'll be nervous every time we kick off this year."
UK special teams coach Steve Ortmayer said his kickoff coverage unit has to be more disciplined in its lanes with Guy than it was against Miami.
"We have to be aware that we're playing a little higher caliber returner this week," Ortmayer said. "Our guys have to do exactly what they did last week, which is run their (tails) off but, when they come within 4 or 5 yards of him, we can't just out and out take shots at him like we did against Miami. This guy can sting you. When you come within 4 or 5 yards of him, you better be coming under control. You've got to get off the ball and get down there, and your timing has to be right. You're going to get blocked a little bit, but you can't stay blocked. You have to keep proper leverage on the ball."
Kickoffs aren't the only area of concern. While Tydlacka's 44.5-yard average on punts against Miami looked nice on paper, he didn't get the hang time necessary to allow his team to get downfield and cover properly.
"His first two punts were pretty, but they didn't stay in the air long enough," Brooks said. "They were beautiful, perfect, tight spirals, but they came down like a rock. I like them to wobble a little bit more."
Again, Miami didn't burn the Cats too badly, picking up 27 yards on two returns. But Guy had a 31-yard punt return against Indiana State and has two career punt-return TDs to go along with his two kickoff-return scores.
Guy is just the appetizer in what will be a smorgasbord of dangerous return men looming on the UK schedule.
Perhaps the nation's best two returners will visit Commonwealth Stadium in back-to-back weeks after the Louisville game. Florida's Brandon James has four career punt-return TDs, and Alabama's Javier Arenas is the active NCAA leader in career punt returns, punt-return yards and punt-return touchdowns.
"Louisville has a great return guy who will test us severely this week, and it will just be a prelude to what we see the rest of the season," Brooks said. "We're going to see great returners in the near future."
Brooks said he watched the South Carolina-Georgia game last weekend, which featured a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD by Georgia's Brandon Boykin, a 57-yard kickoff return by South Carolina's Chris Culliver, and a 48-yard kickoff return by Georgia's Branden Smith.
"Look around the league; we're not the only ones who struggled," Brooks said. "We got spoiled for four years. People remember Tim Masthay, but he's gone, folks."
Lanxter out Saturday
Brooks said junior wide receiver Kyrus Lanxter (hamstring injury) is out for the Louisville game. Senior fullback John Conner (ankle) is expected to make his season debut after missing the Miami game.