Looking back on it, the level of expectation for junior-college transfers DeQuin Evans and Chris Matthews was probably unrealistic.
The talent was there, as both players were four-star prospects out of Harbor College in Los Angeles. But the duo didn't arrive in Lexington until late summer, missing a good portion of off-season workouts and time to bond with teammates and learn UK's schemes.
Trying to step into the SEC and become immediate impact players off of just one month of practice turned out to be more difficult than either player imagined.
Both had their moments. Matthews had four receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown in UK's season opener, and Evans had two sacks the following week against Louisville.
When all was said and done, the numbers didn't look bad. Matthews finished with 32 catches for 354 yards and three touchdowns, while Evans had 38 tackles, six sacks and earned fourth-team All-SEC honors from Phil Steele's College Football.
But the pair struggled to maintain consistency. Matthews struggled with the playbook and was benched for the Alabama game, while Evans had minimal impact in consecutive games against South Carolina, Auburn and Mississippi State.
"I'm my own worst critic. I felt like I could have played 10 times better than what I did," Evans said. "I feel like I should have made more plays, and that's what pushes me to come out here and work harder, so I can make those plays this year."
Matthews admitted that he started thinking too much after the Miami game.
"Last year I really didn't pick up on all the concepts until like the fifth game of the season, maybe even later than that," he said. "You just don't want to mess up. You're worried about what the coaches are doing, then you're thinking about what you're doing, and then you've got the fans into it. But after awhile, once you learn the package, everything comes second nature."
Now Evans and Matthews are taking part in their first spring practice with UK, and Coach Joker Phillips expects that to pay huge dividends in 2010. Phillips said he could start seeing the light go on for Matthews during bowl practices, and Matthews responded with the Wildcats' only touchdown in the Music City Bowl, a 17-yard catch from Morgan Newton.
"The bowl practices were big for those guys," Phillips said. "This is really like a third season for them if you count the bowl practices and now spring practice."
Evans is high-energy and has the kind of personality that could make him a leader on UK's young and inexperienced defensive line.
"I've been waiting for spring ball all off-season," Evans said. "Now I can get a chance to polish up on technique. By the time fall camp comes and the season hits I'll be on top of my game. I feel real comfortable. I'm a leader now. I've got a year of SEC football under my belt. I'm more coachable. I've got the playbook down pat, and I'm making less mistakes every time I step on the field."
While the offensive and defensive schemes are more familiar to Matthews and Evans, both are getting adjusted to new coaches. Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin is coaching wide receivers while ex-Mississippi State assistant David Turner returns for his second stint at UK coaching the defensive line.
Martin said his primary objective is to get Matthews as mentally consistent as possible.
"If you're a B, we want you to be a B every day," Martin said. I don't want a B today, a D tomorrow and an F the next week. If you're a B, be a B every day until you can become an A. That's what I'm looking for out of all of my guys, and (Matthews) is a guy with a lot of potential."
Junior-college prospects typically make a huge jump between their first and second years on campus. Matthews and Evans are counting out on it.
"If I did what I did last year basically off two months of getting ready for the season, I feel like the sky's the limit now," Evans said. "I feel like I've got to come out here and dominate."
"I've been itching to get out here for spring ball," Matthews said. "I have personal goals I want to accomplish, and I feel like I can do it. I just have to get after it."