After three rebuilding seasons Brooks turned things around and guided the Cats to four consecutive winning records and four consecutive bowl appearances, three of which ended in Kentucky victories. The Wildcats have been a program on the upswing and Phillips seeks to keep that momentum moving forward, a difficult thing to do in a powerful league that fields so many top teams.
Phillips will have some firepower returning to the lineup but faces serious challenges on both sides of the ball.
Rebuilding a depleted Wildcat defense will be one key for Phillips. Kentucky lost two solid linebackers in Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell. The defense also lost its star cornerback Trevard Lindley and a solid defensive tackle, Cory Peters.
How Kentucky fares may depend on how well Phillips can utilize incoming freshmen from a solid if unspectacular class and a few key reserves from last season’s squad to fill those gaps. One key for Phillips may be how much mileage he can get out of redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie, an aggressive but undersized (5-11, 210 pounds) linebacker with a reputation for delivering big hits.
On the other side of the ball, things look considerably brighter, though there are some big holes to fill as well. At the quarterback position, the Wildcats have a number of very good options. Senior Mike Hartline will be trying to fend off up and comers Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski for the starting position. Hartline started the first five games last season and was playing the best football of his career before suffering a knee injury against South Carolina.
When Hartline became sidelined, Brooks turned to the true freshman Newton, who started the remaining eight games, guiding the Cats to an impressive 5-3 record. Newton displayed a strong arm and capable running skills. Mossakowski reshirted last season but brings impressive credentials from high school, throwing for 7,433 yards and 51 touchdowns during his career at Centennial High School in Frisco, Texas.
Whoever wins the battle at quarterback will have some nice targets. Chris Matthews is back after making a solid transition from the junior college ranks. He was the Cats’ second leading pass receiver last season. Also back is All-SEC standout Randall Cobb, an all-purpose offensive threat who can return kicks, run, pass and receive. Cobb will be the go-to guy once again for Kentucky.
In addition to a formidable passing attack, the Cats return a talented senior tailback in Derrick Locke, a first-team All-SEC pick as a kick returner and a second team selection as an all-purpose back. Locke possesses blazing speed and good strength. If both Locke and Cobb can remain healthy, they should create a serious 1-2 offensive punch that will put up a lot of points for the Wildcats.
The front line for Kentucky is the biggest potential question mark in what might otherwise be a potent scoring machine. Coach Phillips and first-year offensive line coach Mike Summers have their work cut out for them finding four new starting offensive linemen. Stuart Hines is the lone returning starter. The Wildcats do have some options on the line in senior Brad Durham, who had seven starts in the past two seasons, and junior Billy Joe Murphy, who has mostly played on special teams. Jake Lanefski, a 6-4 280-pound lineman, may be a factor if he recovers from a knee injury.
All in all the Wildcats have tremendous offensive firepower but can only succeed if newcomers on both sides of the ball come through.