The Joker Phillips era, aka "Operation Win," gets under way in 2010. Off the field, the changes have been noticeable, as Phillips overhauled the coaching staff and made adjustments in the practice routine. On the field, not much should change in the way of schemes. The three-man quarterback race started making headlines even before last season was complete. Phillips on Monday named senior Mike Hartline, who had established himself as the favorite in the spring, as the starter. Defensively, UK is almost starting from scratch with several new faces in the lineup. On paper, that looks like a scary proposition, but if you look back a few years ago, who knew that Trevard Lindley, Corey Peters and Sam Maxwell would become the players they became at UK?
Danny Trevathan: The speedy Florida native broke through last season with 82 tackles despite playing most of the year with a cast on his broken left wrist. Look for Trevathan to be used more as a blitzer in 2010, and he'll be asked to provide leadership to a unit that lost a pair of standouts in Micah Johnson and Maxwell.
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Biggest area of concern
Defensive tackle: UK will have a hard time replacing Peters, who had one of the best seasons by a Wildcats defensive tackle in recent memory. Even with Peters, Kentucky struggled to stop the run, and senior Ricky Lumpkin is the only tackle in the rotation who has been more than a bit player. At least two true freshmen will have to be ready to step in and play.
Most important unit
Quarterback: The offense may have to carry the load early on while the young defense tries to mature, and most of the pieces seem to be in place. Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke provide a pair of game-breakers who can hurt teams running or catching the ball. Chris Matthews is expected to develop into a solid No. 2 receiver. The line is expected to be solid. For it all to come together, though, UK will have to get much-improved play from its quarterback, regardless of whether it's Hartline, Morgan Newton or Ryan Mossakowski on the field.
Florida: Tim Tebow or no Tim Tebow, it's still Florida at the Swamp with Urban Meyer on the sideline and some of the nation's premier athletes on the field.
Louisville: The perception is that Charlie Strong still has a way to go to get the Louisville program on track. UK is coming off four straight bowl appearances. A loss here would get the finger-pointing started and put that bowl streak in severe jeopardy.
Vanderbilt: New Vandy coach Robbie Caldwell was a big hit at SEC Media Days, but the fact is that not many people were expecting much of the Commodores this season, even with Bobby Johnson at the helm. Kentucky has to get this one at home.
Game That Will Pack The House
South Carolina: This one comes in the middle of a juicy three-game homestand that also features Auburn and Georgia. While Louisville and Tennessee still rank 1-2 as the teams Cats fans love to beat, nothing would make the Wildcats faithful happier than finally hanging an "L" on Steve Spurrier, who is 17-0 against the Big Blue.
Toughest Road Trip
At Florida: See above
South Carolina: Long losing streaks to Florida and Tennessee are understandable, but there is absolutely no reason for Kentucky to have dropped 10 in a row to South Carolina. The Gamecocks aren't a traditional power, and Spurrier's win-loss record during the past four seasons (28-22) is actually worse than Rich Brooks' (30-22.) What makes it more painful is that seven of those 10 losses have been by a touchdown or less. It says here that all that good karma Spurrier and South Carolina have built up against the Cats will catch up with them this year at Commonwealth Stadium.
Best Non-UK Players We'll See
A.J. Green, Georgia: While Alabama's Julio Jones came into college with slightly more fanfare, Green has been the more productive receiver through two seasons. Green sat out last season's loss to Kentucky with a shoulder injury.
Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: Gilmore is one of the most dynamic young cornerbacks in the country and also will see snaps at quarterback in Steve Spurrier's "Wild Cock" package.
Also: Darvin Adams, Auburn; Drew Butler, Georgia; and Chris Marve, Vanderbilt
Best Possible Bowl Destination
Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla., Jan. 1, 1:30 p.m., ESPN2): Thankfully, none of the SEC teams have to worry about the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., anymore. In its place comes the Gator Bowl, and you could do worse than spending New Year's Day in Jacksonville against a decent Big Ten opponent. Eight wins would likely put the Cats in the mix for the Gator, Chick-fil-A and Outback bowls.
Worst Possible Bowl Destination
Birmingham Bowl (Birmingham, Ala., Jan. 8, noon ESPN): Be honest, Cat fans. Does a game against a Big East opponent a week after New Year's Day really excite you? I didn't think so. Even if the game, formerly known as the Papajohns.com Bowl, was against archrival Louisville, I can't see too many folks getting juiced up for this one.Most Likely Bowl Destination
Chick-fil-A Bowl (Atlanta, Dec. 31, time and network TBA): The Chick-fil-A Bowl folks wouldn't mind having the Cats, as they know how well UK fans travel to Atlanta. But Kentucky has to do its part. The Cats have squandered opportunities to get to Atlanta each of the past three seasons with some painful late-season losses. A 7-5 record with a couple of quality wins might be enough to do it; 8-4 would likely seal it and possibly put Kentucky in position for an even better trip than Atlanta.
Records Cats Could break
Several players in the 2010 senior class could become the first group in school history to appear in five straight bowl games. Running back Derrick Locke needs 269 yards to become just the seventh Wildcats running back to eclipse the 2,000-yard barrier.
Hope for the Future
Kentucky had just a handful of commitments this time last August. Going into Phillips' first season, they've already racked up 16, including commitments from four-star prospects Glen Faulkner, Darrian Miller and Jon Davis. If the Cats can keep all of their commitments and get Boyle County's Lamar Dawson to jump on board, it would rank among their best-ever recruiting classes.
Big Blue Meter
The season is a success if ... the Cats can make it out of Tennessee for a bowl game. Nothing against the Music City or Liberty bowls, but Wildcat fans are eager for an upgrade. Knocking off South Carolina and/or Tennessee would make the season a success as well.
The season will be a disappointment if ... UK doesn't qualify for a bowl, or has to settle for a lower-tier bowl such as the Music City, Liberty or Birmingham.
C A T S ON D E F E N SE
Steve Brown, eighth season at Kentucky, fourth as coordinator
David Turner, defensive line; Chuck Smith, linebackers; Steve Brown, cornerbacks; Chris Thurmond, safeties; Tommy Cook, graduate assistant/defense
UK finished eighth in the SEC and 53rd in the nation in total defense, allowing 359.7 yards per game.
DeQuin Evans, end; Ricky Lumpkin, tackle; Taylor Wyndham, end; Danny Trevathan, linebacker; Winston Guy, safety; Randall Burden, cornerback
What to watch
Brown faces a major rebuilding job after losing two NFL Draft picks (tackle Corey Peters and cornerback Trevard Lindley), two All-SEC linebackers (Sam Maxwell and Micah Johnson) and two projected starters to academics (tackle Mister Cobble and cornerback Paul Warford). The UK defense will have a nice starting point up front in Evans, who had six sacks while still learning the ropes out of junior college. Trevathan is a speedy and productive linebacker. The secondary doesn't have any standouts but returns several players who have been SEC battle-tested.
The Cats need to get things figured out in a hurry in the front seven or there could be problems. There's not a lot of production, experience or depth at the tackle position, and two of the linebacker positions are in a state of flux. UK probably will have to rely on several unproven youngsters to fill holes. Stopping the run has been an issue even when the defensive line was stacked with NFL prospects.
The UK defense has been good enough to keep the team in most games over the past few years, but expect the significant personnel losses to take a toll. Unless some newcomers surprise and/or overachieve, the defense could take a step back this season.
End: DeQuin Evans, Nermin Delic
Tackle: Ricky Lumpkin, Shane McCord
Tackle: Mark Crawford, Donte Rumph
End: Collins Ukwu, Taylor Wyndham
Strongside linebacker: Jacob Dufrene, Ridge Wilson
Middle linebacker: Ronnie Sneed, Qua Huzzie
Weakside linebacker: Danny Trevathan, Ryan Mosby
Cornerback: Martavius Neloms, Cartier Rice
Strong safety: Taiedo Smith, Josh Gibbs
Free safety: Winston Guy, Dakotah Tyler
Cornerback: Randall Burden, Anthony Mosley
Punter: Ryan Tydlacka, Joe Mansour
C A T S ON O F F E N SE
Randy Sanders, fifth season at Kentucky, second as coordinator
Randy Sanders, quarterbacks; Tee Martin, wide receivers; Larry Brinson, running backs; Mike Summers, offensive line; Greg Nord, tight ends; Matt McCutchan, graduate assistant/offensive line
Kentucky finished 10th in the SEC and 93rd nationally in total offense, averaging 331.5 yards per game.
Stuart Hines, left guard; Chris Matthews, wide receiver; Randall Cobb, wide receiver; Mike Hartline, quarterback; Derrick Locke, tailback
What to watch
The pieces are in place for UK's best offense since the Andre Woodson/Keenan Burton/Jacob Tamme/Rafael Little days. The Wildcats have one of the country's best all-purpose combos in Cobb and Locke, who probably had to carry too much of the load last season. Head coach Joker Phillips says the offense will be more balanced this season, but when it's winning time, the ball will be in their hands, and both are proven clutch performers. Phillips says the receivers will be much improved. Matthews should be ready to blossom as a senior after struggling in his first year out of junior college, and La'Rod King and Brian Adams are promising youngsters.
The quarterbacks were a hot topic in the off-season, have been a hot topic in the pre-season and will likely be a hot topic during the season. Hartline has been named the starter, but sophomore Morgan Newton has proven he can come in and win games and the staff likes freshman Ryan Mossakowski's upside. Whoever is on the field, the Cats must be a more consistent passing team in 2010 so teams won't stack the box on Cobb and Locke. The offensive line, a major strength last year, is now a concern after the departure of four starters. But several returning players with game experience, plus the tutelage of Summers, give Phillips reason to think there may not be a huge drop-off.
Cobb and Locke should both have huge years. But the overall success of the unit depends on how consistent the quarterback play is, how the offensive line develops and whether other skill-position players step up and take some pressure off Cobb and Locke.
Left tackle: Chandler Burden, Billy Joe Murphy
Left guard: Stuart Hines, Kevin Mitchell
Center: Jake Lanefski, Matt Smith
Right guard: Larry Warford, Dave Ulinski
Right tackle: Brad Durham, Trevino Woods
Tight end: Nick Melillo, Anthony Kendrick
Wide receiver: Chris Matthews, Brian Adams
Wide receiver: Randall Cobb, La'Rod King
Quarterback: Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton/Ryan Mossakowski
Fullback: Moncell Allen, Greg Meisner
Tailback: Derrick Locke, Donald Russell
Place-kicker: Joe Mansour, Ryan Tydlacka