Coming off a three win, eight loss season, expectations for the Kentucky Wildcats outside of the commonwealth are still not high.
Don't tell that to Coach Rich Brooks though. "We are a better team physically, and we are a better team depth wise," said Brooks. Kentucky has 82 scholarship players this season, a huge change from when Brooks took over the team in 2003. "We only had 68 scholarship players," stated Brooks. "We've been able to sign 25 players each of the last two years, and we'll have 82 or 83 players on the roster this season," Brooks said. "We've got more speed, more depth, and more playmakers than any time since I've been there. We just have to prove it on the field and win games," Brooks said.
Kentucky fans are talking about winning six games and going to a bowl this year. For the first time in several years, Kentucky just may have the talent to do it. Kentucky has seven selections to the 2006 Southeastern Conference Coaches Pre-Season All-SEC team. Rafael Little and Jacob Tamme were both voted to the second team by the coaches. While Michael Aitchenson, Aaron Miller, Wesley Woodyard and Roger Williams were third team selections. Rafael Little was voted to the team twice, once as a running back and once as a return specialist.
Brooks, however, hopes Little won't have to be the offense this year, the way he was in 2005. "Hopefully he won't be our team, which is kind of what he was last year on offense," stated Brooks. Running back Tony Dixon returns from injury after a year off, and Brooks reminded everyone what kind of talent Dixon has. "Rafael is a special player. You've got to remember this, he was playing behind Tony Dixon as a true freshman. Tony got hurt last year in fall camp and missed the entire year," continued Brooks.
The return of wide receiver Keenan Burton will also take the pressure off of Little. Burton, though often injured, has been a big play threat throughout his career. In 18 career games at UK, Burton has hauled in 46 balls for 599 yards and four touchdowns.
Kentucky also returns all five starters on the offensive line, but they all may not start this year. 2005 backups Christian Johnson and Garry Williams will both push for starting positions. Aaron Miller also returns after a year off on the offensive line. The continuity and depth that has been built on the Kentucky offensive line should be a strength for years to come.
Though offense fills the seats in the stadium, games in the SEC are won with good defense. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard returns after leading the team in tackles with 100 last season. "Anytime that you have a great defense, you win. It is our job to stop the offense from scoring and if they don't, we win," said Woodyard. "That's one of the areas we have to step up if we expect to win in this league. Our defense has been too porous the last several years," Brooks said. "We need experience and depth at cornerback, if players come through, we'll be improved on defense," said Brooks.
Kentucky returns seven starters on defense: DT Jason Leger, DT Lamar Mills, DE Durrell White, LB Joe Schuler, LB Braxton Kelley, Woodyard, and safety Roger Williams. Other significant returnees on defense include DL Ricky Abren, DB David Jones, LB Ben McGrath, DB Shomari Moore, DL Nii Adjei Oninku, and DT Myron Pryor. Each of these players will see a significant number of snaps this season.
"I think the key for us defensively is that we've got got to not let teams run the ball down our throats," Brooks stated. In the past, run defense has been the Achilles Heel for the Wildcats. Kentucky ranked 102 in the nation, giving up 196 yards per game and 22 touchdowns on the ground. The Wildcats do return six starters in the front seven and most of their backups. Added strength, more depth with the addition of the freshmen, and experience should help Coach Archer's unit become more complete as the year goes on.
With new found depth and confidence, the future is now for the Wildcats. If lingering questions can be answered positively for Coach Brooks and the strengths of the team are magnified, the Wildcats could be playing in a bowl for the first time in his tenure as Coach.
Do the Cats have the numbers to win six?
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