UK Football

Mark Story: Cobb's many talents will be difficult for Kentucky to replace

Have I mentioned I feel a little sorry for Joker Phillips?

Decked out in a gray suit, black shirt and white tie, Randall Cobb stood in a room inside Commonwealth Stadium on Thursday and, his voice cracking repeatedly with emotion, made the announcement The Long-Suffering Kentucky Football Fan dreaded.

"I had to make the best decision for me, and I felt it was my time to go and pursue my dream to play in the NFL," UK's junior wide receiver said.

In that instant, Phillips' job in elevating Kentucky football — or preventing a major step backward next year — got a lot more challenging.

For Cobb, Kentucky football's Mr. Everything, leaving early for the play-for-pay appears to be a rock-solid business decision. The evaluation he got back from the NFL suggested he was likely to be a third-round draft pick, he said.

"That could mean anything from second round, hopefully, to fourth," Cobb said.

A smallish playmaker such as the 5-foot-11, 186-pound Cobb figures capable of absorbing a limited amount of physical punishment over the course of a football career. With the likelihood he will be a relatively high NFL Draft pick, Cobb is wise to start getting paid for taking those hits as soon as possible.

Other than possibly Tim Couch, no football player in my memory (which starts with UK's first season in Commonwealth Stadium in 1973) has meant as much to the Kentucky program as the guy who came north from Alcoa, Tenn., after the near-by Tennessee Volunteers were tardy in recruiting him.

In only three years, Cobb scored more touchdowns (37) than anyone ever to play for UK. Even more, he had a knack for coming up big on big stages. Five times, Cobb scored the winning TD for Kentucky in the fourth quarter of games.

Which is your favorite? The Mike Hartline pass that Cobb caught to beat Arkansas (and Bobby Petrino) in 2008 while wearing the No. 12 jersey of injured teammate Dicky Lyons Jr.? Was it the acrobatic Cobb catch in the corner of the end zone that beat Louisville in 2009? Or the Cobb TD reception that ended UK's oh-for-all-Spurrier streak this past season against South Carolina?

That doesn't even take into account Cobb's game-winning TD runs in rare Kentucky road wins at Auburn and Georgia in 2009.

"From the first day he walked into the meeting room, the meeting room lit up," Phillips said of Cobb. "He had a presence. He commanded everybody's respect and everybody's attention and demanded they play the way he played. That's what we'll miss the most."

Other than "Twitter-gate," when a frustrated Cobb tweeted his dissatisfaction with elements of Kentucky's fan base after last fall's upset of South Carolina, the wide receiver has been the unfailingly classy public face of the Wildcats program for the last three years.

Now Phillips has to replace all that.

Cobb's decision to leave comes during a rough patch for UK football and its head coach.

In a week's time, there has been the dispiriting bowl loss to Pittsburgh that featured a puzzling Kentucky offensive game plan. There has been prized Indianapolis offensive line recruit Nick Martin, whose father, Keith, played at UK with Phillips, reneging on his commitment to the Cats in favor of Notre Dame.

Now No. 18 is gone, too.

Phillips put the best possible spin on things Thursday.

"This speaks volumes to me about where our program has come," Phillips said of Cobb's early draft entry. "We're now having guys who can consider coming out early, and it hasn't (always) been that way."

Noting that Cobb will join in the NFL other ex-Cats such as Wesley Woodyard, Jacob Tamme, Trevard Lindley and Jeremy Jarmon who were undervalued as recruits, Phillips said Kentucky will pitch that record of developing pros to high school players.

"Anyone can see four- and five-star (high school recruits) that people think are great players," Phillips said. "Randall Cobb was a great player, and we saw it in a guy who wasn't heavily recruited and developed him."

Going forward, the Kentucky coach says, he thinks a number of returning Cats are capable of doing some of the things Cobb did. "But it's a lot of pressure to put on somebody to ask them to do the things we asked Randall to do," he said.

In my first-hand recollection of Kentucky football, no player has been able to do all the things Randall Cobb did.

Which is why Joker's job — a hard one in the best of times — is a whole lot tougher now.