By Stephen John
Kentucky Sports Report
The 2009 season can't come soon enough for some Wildcats fans. Three consecutive bowl wins, solid returning veterans and an infusion of talent, particularly at quarterback, has provided head coach Rich Brooks reasons for optimism, "It's been a good spring," Brooks said. "It can always be better, but overall we've made some good progress and we've identified some people who are playing at a different level than they were when the season ended last year, and that's always an important thing."
While the bowls they played and their overall record will probably not impress many Florida or Tennessee fans, the last three seasons have represented a huge step forward for Kentucky football, and Brooks and company will seek to keep that momentum rolling.
Still, Kentucky has a lot of work to do and the first order of business will be to determine who will lead the Cats from the quarterback position. Randall Cobb and Mike Hartline are both back for another season. Both played quarterback at times and both were up and down. Hartline completed 17-of-33 passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Cobb's future appears to be at wide receiver, however, and Hartline faces talented challengers for the No. 1 spot.
The Cats have two big talents coming in to compete for the quarterback spot. Morgan Newton chose Kentucky over such schools as Florida, Miami, South Carolina, Clemson and Illinois. Newton's size (6-4, 220) is a big plus, and he will be hard for Brooks to keep off the field, particularly if Hartline doesn't produce. Kentucky also signed Ryan Mossakowski from Texas.
A pleasant surprise, and perhaps a wild card for UK is Will Fidler, who had his best spring as a Wildcat running the second team.
Whoever is at quarterback, the top target will be the guy who shared the chores last fall, Randall Cobb. Cobb may play exclusively at wide receiver this fall, except for taking an occasional shotgun snap in UK's "Wildcat" package.
Kentucky should have a productive ground attack with three solid veteran tailbacks – Alfonso Smith, Derrick Locke and Moncell Allen. Locke is coming off an injury so his status is uncertain. The Wildcats return a solid defense as well, with their three standout juniors – cornerback Trevard Lindley, defensive end Jeremy Jarmon and middle linebacker Micah Johnson – all passing on the NFL to return for '09.
The Wildcats finished last in the SEC East at 2-6 in 2008 but still managed a bowl bid and a winning record. The Cats should improve but how much may depend on their productivity at quarterback.
Kentucky has a reasonably light non-conference schedule. All of the non-conference games are at home. Only one game comes against particularly tough competition; a return engagement with Louisville. Additional non-conference games are with Miami of Ohio (2-8), Louisiana-Monroe (4-8) and another subdivision foe, Eastern Kentucky (8-4). Five of their first seven SEC games are at home, which could benefit.
The Cats have one additional schedule challenge; they receive their bye week during the second week of the season. Beginning with the Sept. 19 game against Louisville, the Cats play 11 straight weeks.
Still, the early games should provide Brooks the opportunity to look at some of his key players prior to the always-tough SEC schedule.
"I always look for the same things - individual improvement, technique and ability, as well as guys making plays," Brooks said. "We've had a lot of good fundamental work this spring and now it's time to go out and see who's going to make plays and take advantage of the opportunities."