2009 SEC Preview: Kentucky

2009 SEC Previews | Gate 21

Three years, three bowl games, three bowl wins.

The last time Kentucky football had seen a similar stretch of success, they had Tim Couch throwing the ball all over Commonwealth Stadium in the Fun’N’Gun-on-steroids offense of Hal Mumme.

After Jared Lorenzen became the school’s all-time career passing leader and a combined 5 wins in Rich Brooks’ first two years, Andre Woodson came in and by his senior season had not only made the Wildcats a competitive team that couldn’t be taken lightly by the SEC heavyweights, but had Kentucky ranked in the top 10 in the country after knocking off top-ranked LSU.

However, the bottom fell out on the rest of that 2007 season, and after Woodson graduated, along with a trio of targets currently on NFL rosters (Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme), many – including myself felt Kentucky was going to fall back a little bit into their normal role of fighting with Vanderbilt to stay out of the SEC East cellar.

But, despite averaging only 18 points a game in the conference, Kentucky managed six wins (the Wildcats went just 2-6 in the SEC) and capped it off by beating Conference USA champion East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. However, with the departure of the majority of the defense Kentucky relied and the struggles of the offense, can Kentucky reach a fourth straight bowl, something they’ve never done in 120 years of playing football?

Schedule Breakdown

    Assumed wins:

  • vs. Miami-Ohio at Cincinnati (the Redhawks were just 2-10 last year, including a 34-13 loss to Vanderbilt at home)
  • UL-Monroe
  • Mississippi State (UK won at State last year)
  • Eastern Kentucky
  • Assumed losses:

  • Florida (that streak Tennessee has against Kentucky? Florida is just a game behind, with 22 straight wins over the Cats)
  • Alabama (Kentucky lost just 17-14 in Tuscaloosa last year, but they’ve only beaten Bama twice ever?
  • at South Carolina (Steve Spurrier doesn’t lose to Kentucky – he’s 16-0 all-time)
  • at Georgia (Kentucky’s lost 11 of 12 in the series)
  • Toss-ups:

  • Louisville
  • at Auburn
  • at Vanderbilt
  • Tennessee

Studs

WR Randall Cobb (Soph.): Kentucky had no real playmakers when they lost Rafael Little, Burton, Johnson and Tamme. Enter Cobb, the true freshman from nearby Alcoa. Cobb started the year at receiver, catching two TDs in the come-from-behind win over Arkansas in October.

Randall Cobb is the best playmaker for the Kentucky offense

Mike Hartline played most of the year at QB, but Cobb outplayed Hartline in the 63-5 beatdown in Gainesville and started the next 3 games, leading Kentucky to win in Starkville and coming up just short of upsetting Georgia in a 42-38 loss. In all, Cobb scored 11 TDs (7 rushing) and though he’ll once again start the year at receiver, head coach Rich Brooks said at last week’s SEC Media Days we’ll see Cobb in a Wildcat package – either way, he’s probably Kentucky’s best offensive skill player.

Micah Johnson led UK in tackles for loss in 2008

The offensive line: Kentucky has three seniors starting on the line this year – Jorge Gonzalez at center and tackles Justin Jeffries and Zipp Duncan. They also have four other players back who have started games before, so it’s an experienced group. They’re also pretty good, because they only the fewest sacks in the SEC last year (13). What can help struggles at the QB position better than an offensive line.

MLB Micah Johnson (Sr.): Johnson was a first team all-SEC player last year, racking up 93 tackles, second on the team. He’ll be anchoring not only a new linebacking corps, but an almost entirely new defense. Johnson and cornerback Trevard Lindley are Kentucky’ best defensive players, as it will be tough for Kentucky’s defense to be as good as they were last year.

X-Factors

QB Mike Hartline (Jr.): Hartline was in no way spetacular last season, as by the end of the year he was benched in favor of Cobb. Kentucky ranked only ahead of Tennessee, MSU and Vandy in passing last year, and Hartline’s issues were the major reason for that. He completed just 55% of his passes and threw for 9 TDs with 8 picks. In addition to Cobb, he’s got two freshman (Morgan Newton and four-star Ryan Mossakowski) coming in. Whether it’s Hartline or Cobb or whoever, the QB position is obviously the key to any improvements in Kentucky’s offense.

Linebackers: As I mentioned above, Micah Johnson is the only linebacker returning for Kentucky. They’ll have to replace Braxton Kelley, who led the team in tackles last year, and Johnny Williams. The rest of the group? 40 tackles and one combined start combined. However, keep an eye on sophomore Sam Maxwell.

Close games: Kentucky played 8 games last year that were decided by a touchdown last year. The Wildcats were 4-4 in those games, and they caught some breaks in those games: Middle Tennessee State’s hail mary as time expired came up just a yard short, Arkansas blew a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter in Lexington, and Mississippi State missed an extra point and short field goal in the fourth quarter. Can they do as well in close games against this year?

What’s New, but Maybe Not Improved

Derrick Locke led Kentucky in rushing before a knee injury against Arkansas ended his year

RB Derrick Locke (Jr.): Forgotten in the memories of Woodson and Company from 2007 is running back Derrick Locke, the speedy back who provided a spark to that offense as a true freshman. Locke suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Arkansas game last season, and up to that point he was Kentucky’s leading rusher.

Locke, along with junior Moncell Allen, provide a nice group little scat-type backs that fit Joker Phillips’ offense. Senior Alfonso Smith is also in the backfield as Kentucky leading returning rusher not named Randall Cobb.

Defensive Line: Having to replace tackle Myron Pryor and end Ventrell Jenkins is one thing, but add in the suspension and departure of end Jeremy Jarmon and Kentucky’s might have some issues on the defensive front.

Tackle Corey Peters is still there, but the play of a pair of junior college transfers – end DeQuin Evans and tackle Mark Crawford – could be a key in Kentucky’s run defense and pass rush.

Secondary: Paul Warford started 14 games in 2006 and 2007, but redshirted last year. He’ll compete for the corner spot opposite Lindley along with some younger guys who have started before – safeties Calvin Harrison, Ashton Cobb, Taiedo Smith and Matt Lentz. Winston Guy is another guy (?) who could make a big impact. Kentucky was 40th in the nation against the pass last year, and despite losing a couple of starters, the Cats could still be solid on the back end.

HSH’s Bold Prediction

I think Kentucky can beat Louisville (they pounded the Cardinals 27-2 last year on the road) and Vanderbilt at home. They should be able to hold serve against Mississippi State at home and take care of business against the other three out-of-conference foes. That gets the Cats to 6 wins and a likely bowl game, which would be a fairly remarkable job by Rich Brooks.

Can they get a seventh win in there? They could beat Auburn and Tennessee considering the unknowns with new coaching staffs of those two teams, but I don’t see that happening. Either way, I expect to stay on the course and get to another bowl.

About Home Sweet Home... … to me.


Images Courtesy of: David Stephenson / Lexington Herald Leadernationalchamps.netGetty Images / Daylife

About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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