As we race toward kicking off another season of UK football, everyone knows the big names for the Wildcats.
Guys like Maxwell Smith, La'Rod King, Larry Warford, Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Collins Ukwu are all easily recognizable to most of the Big Blue Nation.
At some point on Sunday, however, a player is going to do something that makes many UK supporters scramble for their programs or nudge a fellow fan with an elbow and ask "Who is (insert jersey number)?"
Here are five potential difference-makers you may not know much about now, but could become big names by the time the final seconds tick off the clock at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
No. 9 Landon Foster, Punter -- Let's face it. The punter might as well be the least-popular player on any team, at least from a general fan standpoint. Nobody ever wants to see him trot onto the field because it means your offense has failed or the coach has stubbornly elected to give the ball away on that fourth-and-one when everyone in the stadium is chanting "Go! Go!" with all the power they can summon in their vocal chords. It's often a thankless job, but one of the most important on the team, especially when your offense isn't on the top of its game. Remember the last time UK took the field? Of course you do. The Cats ended a 26-year drought against Tennessee thanks in large part to the magnificent punting of Ryan Tydlacka. He punted nine times for a 43.6 average and no return yardage, setting up the UK defense for success time after time. Kentucky has been blessed with really strong punting in recent years (check out the job Tim Masthay is doing with the Green Bay Packers) and the Cats think they have their next great one in Foster, a confident freshman from Franklin, Tenn, who Joker Phillips has deemed "a different breed." If he's able to "flip the field" consistently against the Cards, UK's chances of pulling an upset are substantially better.
No. 79 Kevin Mitchell, Right Tackle -- I can't help it. Whenever I hear Kevin Mitchell's name or see it in print, I can't help but think of the gold-toothed former National League MVP who starred for clubs like the Mets, Giants and Reds before a hefty appetite and injuries caught up with him. (Even at 300 pounds, Big K could still roll out of bed and turn on a 98 mph fastball like nobody's business, but I digress.) THIS Kevin Mitchell is a junior who has been in the UK program for four years, but has started only one game entering the 2012 season. The 6-foot-6, 292-pound product of Winston, Ga., will be in the spotlight Sunday because he's playing on the edge against a Charlie Strong defense that loves to bring pressure. If you don't hear his name much, that probably bodes well for the Cats. If you do, it probably means Maxwell Smith is on his back or a yellow hankie is on the turf.
No. 80 Ronnie Shields, Tight End -- The tight end hasn't been much of a weapon for the Cats since Jacob Tamme left the program, but there were signs at the end of the 2011 season that, with Smith at quarterback, it could be making a comeback in the UK offense. Smith targeted his tight ends much more frequently than Morgan Newton when he lined up under center. Shields, a sophomore from Stone Mountain, Ga., is currently bracketed with Tyler Robinson as the probable starter at tight end against Louisville, but he's the guy the staff has long envisioned as a breakthrough player at the position. He's got the size (6-5, 243) and the athleticism to present matchup problems for the Cards. It will take a very athletic linebacker to stick with him, and if the Cards try one of the safeties on him, Shields will have a significant height advantage. Don't be surprised if he's not the Cats' leading pass-catcher in this game.
No. 51 Tristian Johnson, Defensive Tackle -- Johnson came to UK as a classic high school "tweener" prospect, too small to play defensive line, not explosive enough to play linebacker. But he had one very important thing in his favor: a LaGrange, Ga., mailing address. And when the Cats go into LaGrange, Ga., you know what usually happens. They wind up with players. (Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley, Demoreo Ford, Randall Burden, etc., etc.) It took him a long time to get to this point, but Johnson is now carrying 272 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame and has worked his way into the two-deep by having what the staff has described as one of the best fall camps of anyone on the team. Look for him to get many snaps spelling Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph up front. One of the big keys to winning this game is slowing down the UofL rushing attack. It will be interesting to see if Johnson is up to the task.
No. 59 Kelly Mason, Long-snapper -- Alright, I admit it. I couldn't pick Kelly Mason out of a police lineup if my life depended on it. You might as well put R. Kelly or Perry Mason or Regis & Kelly out there. I have no idea who this young man is, but I should. We all should. The UK media guide tells me he's a redshirt freshman from Rockton, Ill. That kind of sounds like Rockford, Ill., home of one of my favorite all-time bands, Cheap Trick, so I guess that's something. No, here's something: Mason won the National Long-Snapping Competition while in high school, besting more than 100 other specialists. That tells me he's pretty good at his job, and he'll need to be on Sunday. How many times do you see one of these early-season games decided in part by a special teams gaffe? Often it's these snaps that are the difference between a routine play and disaster. Like Mitchell above, it will be a good game for Mason is we don't hear his name at all. And like Cheap Trick sang on Live at Budokan, "Ain't That A Shame," but Mason will gladly enjoy the anonymity if the Cats get the W.
Five Cats who could make names for themselves
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