LEXINGTON, Ky. --- For those still questioning whether Kentucky has the receiving corps to fuel the Wildcats' passing attack, Harold Jackson thinks he's found all the reassurance they'll need.
Jackson, the Cats' new receivers coach, began fall practice searching for a "go-to man" but instead found a group of players he feels can collectively get the job done.
"There's not that one guy you'd say this is our 'go-to man'," he said. "But I feel like I've found six or seven, maybe eight, guys who have really come on strong since we started camp. And that's what we were looking for.
"In this offense, we can't have just one guy. We're looking for six or seven guys because they're going to do a lot of running around out there when we're in four-wide or five-wide (formations). I've got to have at least that many ready to go on Saturdays."
Jackson, a former NFL standout with 579 receptions, 10,372 yards and 76 touchdowns to his credit, has been a man in the spotlight since joining the UK staff in February. He's been asked to use his vast experience to bring the most out of a UK receiving corps that was something of a disappointment last season.
Despite owning the Southeastern Conference's No. 2 passing attack (3,689 yards), only Derek Smith and Quentin McCord were among the league leaders in receptions per game at 4.5 and 4.1, respectively. McCord, currently with the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, had modest team-highs of 799 yards and six touchdowns.
So now Jackson sets out to reload the "Air Raid" attack with a group of largely unknown targets.
"I tell them reach out to me," he said. "Ask me anything. Use my experience. They're a group that's eager to learn and work for me. That's the biggest thing that stands out, and if you're willing to do that, you can accomplish big things."
Smith, a first-team All-SEC selection in 2000, returns as the Cats' top receiving threat. The 6-foot-6, 266-pound tight end caught 50 passes for 716 yards and five touchdowns last season. Those numbers may decline this year, however, as Smith is asked to become more of a complete player by his new head coach.
"He's got a chance to be as good as he wants to be," Guy Morriss said. "As a pass receiver, he's already a great player. But he's not been a great blocker. He's got to be a lot better blocker for us to be successful. For us to run the ball the way we want to --- the way we need to at certain times --- he's got to give us that. If he does, he could be the most complete tight end in the country."
Morriss says Smith has improved by leaps and bounds with his blocking (and overall strength) since the end of last season, but the team may also call on junior Chase Harp more often in 2001. The 6-4, 243-pound Harp is a markedly better blocker, although he only has 12 career receptions for 146 yards.
Another "X" factor for the Cats at the tight end position is wideout-hybrid Jermaine White. Blessed with a 6-6, 214-pound frame to go along with his 4.4 speed and 40-inch vertical leap, White is a player in whom the staff continues to see great potential. The lone knock on the senior from Gainesville, Fla., is a tendency to drop too many routine passes.
"He's a kid who could really help us do some things to stretch the field at that position," Morriss said. "We're hoping Jermaine can come through and help us. He's very talented."
White has eight career receptions, but two of them have gone for touchdowns. Both of those came in 1998, a 57-yard bomb against Louisville and a 46-yard TD against Eastern Kentucky.
At wide receiver, the Cats feature some experience with senior Dougie Allen and sophomore Derek Abney. The 5-10, 179-pound Allen has spent part of the last two season injured, but has 60 career receptions and five touchdowns to his credit. Abney played in all 11 games as a true freshman, catching 40 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns to earn Freshman All-SEC honors by the league's coaches and the Knoxville News-Sentinel. The 5-10, 171-pounder is one of the fastest UK players at 4.35 in the 40.
"If we've got a healthy Dougie Allen, we're in good shape," Jackson said. "We need to keep him on the field because he's a kid who knows how to play, knows how to make things happen. He's going to bring a lot to the table because we've got a lot on our tray for him.
"Derek Abney's got that pure speed. He's got the speed to get behind guys, plus he's a fearless kid. He'll go after the ball. We're going to be looking to get the ball to him a lot."
Kentucky got a much needed boost to its receiving corps by signing junior college All-American Aaron Boone. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound product of Snow College in Utah caught 81 passes for 1,505 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
During fall practice, he's been one of the Cats' most impressive players, showing both a knack for getting open as well as eluding defenders after the catch.
"Boone is a big target with great hands," Jackson said. "That's the thing that sets him apart from the rest of these guys... But his speed is better than what you think it is. He's got real good speed to get down field, and he's got that ability to make the first guy, and sometimes the second guy, miss. That's something you can't teach. He's got all kinds of natural ability."
Jackson likes the way Boone will fight defenders for the ball.
"He'll go after that ball," he said. "A quarterback just loves that. He's a guy that will be really good in the red zone."
Also looking to break the Cats' receiver rotation are senior Champ Kelly (5-11, 188), junior Ernest Simms (5-8, 170), sophomore Brad Pyatt (6-0, 203) and redshirt freshman Tommy Cook (6-0, 191).
Of that group, Cook has opened the most eyes in recent practice sessions, including a two-touchdown performance in the Cats' first scrimmage.
"I like Tommy Cook," Jackson said. "He started making a push back in the spring, and he's kept pushing that door in. He's got himself into the mix with his work. He's a strong kid with real nice hands and pretty good speed that will suprise you."
Kelly and Simms fall into a category of potential "playmakers" for UK. Both have tremendous speed with Simms possessing the fastest feet (4.3 in the 40) on the team.
"It's a matter of consistency with them," Jackson said. "They're speed guys we need to get the ball to, and we're hoping they can come through on Saturdays.
"Ernest could be a real playmaker for us. We've got to find ways to use that blazing speed."
Simms saw significant playing time late last season and responded with 10 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns. His catch of a short pass turned into an 86-yard touchdown against Georgia was one of the Cats' most exciting plays of the year.
Pyatt, who caught 21 balls for 207 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 1999, must sit out the first four games of the season as part of an NCAA-mandated four-game suspension relating to the school's internal investigation into the football program. The Arvada, Colo., native was cited for receiving improper academic assistance.