Early Season Preview: Kentucky Wildcats

<img src=http://graphics.fansonly.com/photos/schools/kty/story_headline_photos/sports/m-tennis/uklogo_mini.jpg width=78 height=48 align=left>By the time the Kentucky Wildcats come to town South Carolina will have already faced her first two SEC opponents on the road. It will be time for a little home cooking ...

University of Kentucky Wildcats
Williams Brice Stadium
October 11

The 2002 Kentucky Wildcats were one of the big surprises in the SEC last season. After consecutive 2-9 seasons, the Wildcats pulled a surprising turnaround finishing the season at 7-5 with solid victories over very good Louisville and Arkansas teams. Due to NCAA sanctions that run through the 2004 season, the Wildcats were ineligible for a bowl game.

Head coach Guy Morriss was rewarded for his effort with the offer of a contract extension midway through the 2002 season. At the time, Morris declared that the UK staff could finally tell recruits that they were at Kentucky for the long run and that they could dispense with the interim label that they had taken on when replacing former Coach Hall Mumme. Morriss had been promoted to replace Mumme amid a pending NCAA Investigation one season earlier.

Morriss shocked the Wildcat faithful in December when he accepted the Baylor job and its annual salary in excess of a million dollars. After a three-week search, the Wildcats named former Oregon State and St. Louis Rams head coach Rich Brooks as their Top Cat. Just as the sports world was issuing a collective yawn over the hiring of a coach who had not worked in two years, Brooks shocked the college football world by stealing Kansas State's offensive coordinator Ron Hudson to run the offense in Lexington and former UK defensive coordinator and former LSU Head Coach Mike Archer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to run his defense.

The 15 scholarships that the NCAA penalized Kentucky are beginning to show in the form of poor depth at critical positions. The Cats will remain on NCAA Sanctions through the 2004 season as a result of recruiting violations committed by former UK recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett. The real bulk of the sanction damage will likely show itself in 2004 when a number of key seniors expend eligibility.

This year, the Cats return 11 starters from the 2002 team, seven on offense and four on defense. There are some critical elements of the surprising 2002 team that are missing. How the highly regarded Cats' staff deals with the replacement of those elements will be the difference between success and failure for the team in the 2003 season

Kentucky Coaching

62-year-old Rich Brooks comes to the Cats after having been out of college coaching since 1994. Brooks held the head-coaching job at the University of Oregon from 1977 to 1994 when he left to take the helm of the NFL's St. Louis Rams. Most recently, Brooks was an assistant for Dan Reeves and the Atlanta Falcons. Brooks left that job in 2000 and has not held a coaching job since.

Brooks clearly understands that sense of urgency at Kentucky and that he would not have been the head coaching choice for the Cats had they not been mired in the midst of NCAA Sanctions.

Recognizing the need for an experienced and creative coaching staff, Brooks has assembled a veteran team of coaches that have a combined total of 243 years of football coaching experience. Eight of the ten coaches on Brooks' staff have NFL experience. South Carolina fans are acutely aware of the recruiting abilities of former Gamecock Assistant Joker Philips who holds the job of wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. Whether or not Phillips can be more successful in coaching receiving fundamentals than he was in Columbia remains to bee seen.

Offensive coordinator Ron Hudson arrives in Lexington after having spent the last eight years at Kansas State, first as quarterbacks coach, then as offensive coordinator. Hudson's K State teams were known as extremely balanced and effective offensive teams. During Hudson's tenure at K State, his teams compiled a record of 80-20. In the spring, Hudson began installing a multiple set pro-style offense at Kentucky in which he hopes to balance both an effective ground and passing game. This will be a challenge given the departure of the SEC's 2002 leading rusher Artose Pinner who was the third round draft choice of the Detroit Lions.

Defensive coordinator Mike Archer finds himself in a bit of a quandary as he tries to install a 3-4-4 defense in place of the odd 4-2-5 that the Cats employed in 2002. The 3-4-4, which Archer used successfully as the linebackers coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, requires strong play from the linebacking corps to support the three man front. However, the lack of quality depth at linebacker is one of the glaring weaknesses of this Kentucky team.

Kentucky Offense vs. Carolina Defense

To open his tenure as head coach at the University of Kentucky, Brooks has placed his entire team on an extensive conditioning program in the off-season.

As a result, starting quarterback Jared Lorenzen (6'4" 275 Sr) reported to spring camp approximately 25 pounds lighter than his 2002 playing weight. That's a good move for both the Cats as a team and for Lorenzen. Lorenzen is a much more mobile and effective quarterback in the 275 lb range than he is in the 300 lb range. While Lorenzen posted excellent passing numbers last season, in both the Florida and South Carolina losses, he was sacked at critical junctures. Lorenzen is clearly the cornerstone of this offense. In 2002, as a member of the second team All-SEC squad, Lorenzen threw for 2267 yards and had an excellent touchdown to interception ratio of 24:5. As much as Lorenzen's size has brought a great deal of attention to him, his inability to scramble as effectively as a smaller quarterback has been a curse to the Cats at time. Lorenzen will be backed up by Shane Boyd (6'3" 236 Jr) who started five games in 2001.

Lorenzen's favorite receiver in 2002 was the now departed Aaron Boone who led the Cats with 706 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. The versatile and dangerous Derek Abney (5'10" 175 Sr) returns to start at wideout where he caught 40 balls and four touchdowns in 2002. Abney almost deserves a heading of his own in this preview because his abilities as a receiver are only a small portion of the scoring potential that he brings to the Cats. In 2002, Abney accounted for 1,922 all-purpose yards including 804 kick-off return yards and 544 punt return yards. His four punts returned for touchdown and two kickoffs returned for touchdown illustrate what a dangerous and multi-talented threat that he is. At the other starting wideout will be Tommy Cook (6'0" 194 Jr) who possesses 4.4 speed. Cook may find himself challenged for the starting job by True Freshman John Logan (6'1" 178 4.2) who was heavily recruited by USC before choosing his home state Wildcats. Logan has the talent and speed to make an immediate impact.

In 2002, Artose Pinner was the SEC's leading rusher and Player of the Year with 1414 yards rushing and 13 rushing touchdowns. Pinner was also Lorenzen's third favorite receiver grabbing 37 passes for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns. Pinner's departure leaves the Cats with a serious void and no obvious answer as to how to fill that void. In the spring, a battle developed between Alexis Bwenge (6'1" 216 So) from Quebec and Arliss Beach (6'0" 202 So). Bwenge and Beach rushed a combined 44 times for 191 yards in 2002. If his spring performance holds up through fall camp, we expect Beach to capture the first team tailback spot for the Cats in 2003. JUCO Transfer Draak Davis (5'7" 170 TrJR), who rushed for over 1800 yards as a JUCO last year, could figure into the mix at the position or as a slot back.

Three of the five members of the 2002 starting offensive line return for the 2003 season in what may be the strongest unit for the Cats in a number of years. In 2002, the Cats OL led the way for Pinner's very successful season and gave up a respectable 28 sacks of the somewhat less than mobile Lorenzen. The Kentucky Rushing game averaged a very respectable 4.1 yards per carry average behind this veteran group. The departed starters are TE Chase Harp who caught 11 passes including three for touchdowns in 2002 and 3 year starting RG Keith Chatelain. Harp will likely be replaced by Jeremiah Drobney (6'4" 246 So) who caught two passes in limited action in 2002. Chatelain will be replaced by Sylvester Miller (6'5" 297 Sr) who started five games at LT in 2002 as a result of injuries to other starters.

The star of the interior offensive line is RT Antonio Hall (6'5" 299 Sr) who was first team All-SEC in 2002. This past winter, Hall turned down an opportunity to turn pro after seeing that he would not be a pick in the first three rounds of the draft. As mentioned earlier, Sylvester Miller (6'5" 297 Sr) is penciled in to be the starter at RG. Miller started five games at LT in 2002 due to an injury to the starter at that position. LT Matt Huff (6'5" 304 Jr) returns from a 2002 season ending MCL injury to reclaim the starting position LG Jason Rollins returns in 2003 after starting 12 games at the position in 2002. Rollins has reportedly added 15 pounds of muscle as a result of the new conditioning program which should make him much more competitive against SEC sized defensive lines. The starting C will be Nick Seitze (6'5" 292 Sr), a converted defensive tackle who started 12 games at Center in 2002.

As was the case in 2002, the Cats don't have a lot of experienced and talented depth behind the starting offensive linemen. Mammoth Yancey Reynolds (6'5" 325 TrJr) has the ability to back up at either the RT or LT positions. Reynolds took a medical redshirt in 2002 due to a wrist injury that caused him to miss the entire season. The remaining interior line starters are either freshmen, redshirt freshmen, or sophomores with little starting game experience.

The Gamecock defensive line will match up against the Cats offensive line nicely. Assuming a starting rotation of Gause, Jackson, Shropshire, Thompson, Tucker and Saint Preux, the Gamecocks will match up pound for pound on the interior with the Cats starting linemen. That's the kind of factor that leads to offensive line breakdowns as the game progresses. The key match up of the day will be great potential of Gause against the established talent of Hall. Gause will clearly have a chance to further his new potential as an All-SEC rush end based on his performance in this game. If Gause is successful in getting by Hall early, the Cats will have no choice except to double team him with the tight end thus eliminating one more scoring threat from their arsenal.

By keeping the starting OL occupied with good size match ups all afternoon, the Gamecocks will clearly be able to take advantage of both the linebacker and safety blitz with Marcus Lawrence and his 4.5 speed being the primary candidate to go up the middle from his strong side position. In the event of injury to the starting OL members for the Cats, it could make for both a long afternoon against the Gamecocks and a long season.

From a receiving perspective Abney, Abney is a freak of nature. At just 5'10 175 lbs (more likely 5'8" 160 in reality), it appears that the match ups of the USC corners against Abney is a no-brainer in favor of the Gamecocks. The thing about Abney is that he has hands the size of those that you would typically find on a 6'3" receiver. For the most part, he generally catches pretty much everything thrown his way. His speed is comparable to that of both Eiland and Robinson in the Carolina backfield. For the Gamecocks, the biggest concern may be the development of true freshman John Logan. Though only 6'0 and 178 lbs, Logan reported has been clocked unofficially at under 4.2 in training. It was that speed that caught the attention of former USC and current UK wide receivers coach Joker Phillips during the spring 2002 evaluation period. In order to keep Logan form breaking free in man coverage, the Gamecocks must force Lorenzen to hurry his throws.

The Cats have to replace a substantial amount of scoring production that is no longer on their roster in 2003. Artose Pinner accounted for 13 of the Cats 19 rushing touchdowns in 2002. Pinner, Aaron Boone and Chase Harp accounted for 15 of the Cats 24 receiving touchdowns in 2002. If the solutions are presently on the roster, it will come as a surprise to many as the Cats showed little ability to rely on the second team depth in 2002. The 2002 second team comprises a large part of the Cats' starting talent at running back and wide receiver in 2003.

Carolina Offense vs. Kentucky Defense

As mentioned in the preview of this article, Kentucky only returns four starters to a defense that gave up an average of 401 yards and 25 points per game in 2002. Archer's decision to switch the Cats from a 4-2-5 alignment to a more traditional 4-3, which highlights the contributions of athletic linebackers, is puzzling considering that the linebacking corps is considered to be one of the real weak links of this defense. The biggest loss for the Cats on the defense was 2nd Team All -SEC DT Dewayne Robertson, a solid run stopper, who was taken by the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft. Even with Robertson's contribution, the Cats gave up 4.4 yards per rushing carry in 2002. His shoes will be large ones to fill as he accounted for 8.5 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries in 2002. Also gone is starting DE Otis Grigsby whose 10 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries were critical elements of the 2002 Cat defense.

Jeremy Caudill (6'3" 297) will return to start at DE in 2002 where he started 11 games in 2001 and played in 12 games in 2002. Caudill had 39 tackles in 2002 including 4 for loss. He will be backed up by red-shirt freshman Kareem Reid (6'5" 266).

Elery Moore (6'3" 289 Jr) impressed in limited action in 2002 as DT. In 2 starts, Moore had 28 tackles including 4.5 for loss. He is the leading candidate to start at NT along with Bennie Mills (6'3"280 Jr). The lack of experience at this position could be particularly problematic for the Cats.

Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns (6'2" 258 TrJR) returns to the other end where he earned second team All-SEC honors with a 65 tackle effort in 2002. Burns will be backed up by Trey Mielsch (6'3" 255 So) who earned limited playing time as a true freshman in 2002.

The linebacking corps is a complete mystery for the Cats at this point in the pre-season. Both of the starting linebackers (as well as the SS who would frequently drop into a linebacker's stance) from the 2002 team have expended their eligibility. The returning group is neither deep on talent nor were they highly recruited due to the Cats previous emphasis that focused on a diminished role for the linbacker.

Last year's starters Ronny Riley and Morris Lane averaged 77 tackles between them. The projected starters for 2003 at OLB are Deion Holts (6'3" 228 So) who was named to the SEC Freshman Team as a DE in 2002 and Durrell White (6'3" 250 RFr) who missed the 2002 season due to an ACL tear. The candidates for the two ILB positions are Chad Anderson (6'4" 240 So.) who has received little playing time since signing with Kentucky in 2001 due to grade problems and injuries and Dustin Williams (6'3" 250 So) who had 35 tackles in back up duty in 2002.

Archer may turn this into a very good linebacking unit. However, at the present time, they are extremely inexperienced and unproven.

Both UK corners provide very nice match ups for taller faster Gamecock receivers. Leonard Burress (5'11" 189) returns to a unit that gave up an average of 226 yards passing in 2002 as well as 23 touchdown passes for the season. Burris had 10 broken up passes, but no interceptions in 2002. Earvin Flowers (5'10" 185 Jr) returns at the other corner where he had one interception and only four broken up passes as a backup last year. Antoine Huffman (6'0" 170 So) will back up Flowers and could easily find himself starting due to his superior height.

SS Mike Williams returns to a unit where he is the second leading tackler from last season behind Sweet Pea Burns. Williams' 53 tackles speak clearly for the problem that the Cats had in stopping the run in 2002. However, Williams may be the most complete defensive player behind the line of scrimmage for the Cats. In 2002, Williams had five tackles for loss, two interceptions and five broken up passes. Given the lack of talented experience that the Cats have at the corner, Williams could well find himself performing double coverage duties against the taller and faster Gamecock receivers. Williams will be backed up by Travis Atwell (6'1" 209 Jr), a converted quarterback and transfer from Toledo who saw limited action at SS in 2002.

The FS position will be held down by Muhammad Abdullah (6'0" 200 So). Abdullah played in 13 games in 2002 recording 13 tackles and no interceptions.

On paper this game looks like an offensive field day for the Gamecocks. Barnes, Levy Goddard, Alston and Wharton have decided weight and experience advantages over the starting three of Caudill, Moore, and Burns for the Cats. That should lead to the Gamecocks being able to run effectively against the Cats as well as defend both the linebacker and safety Blitz with success. In the event that the Cats bring the big outside linebacker Durrell White to the line, look for the Gamecocks to expose the weakness in the middle by throwing to the tight end on short crossing routes. That strategy will force the Cats to bring the experienced Mike Williams forward to defend against the intermediate pass and will leave the Gamecocks receivers Williamson, Goodman and Thomas in very favorable match ups against smaller inexperienced defensive backs.

I have no doubt that this Kentucky staff will put together a very solid program in Lexington. The coaching staff has outstanding experience and has constructed winners at a number of schools whose football tradition is less attractive than that of the Cats.

It just isn't going to happen in the next two years. NCAA sanctions have crippled the Cats in terms of recruiting players to fill the void left by the former staff. When you look at the depth chart, it becomes clear as to why Guy Morriss was so eager to leave Lexington even after being offered a contract extension. After the 2003 season, the talent falls off even more as the Cats lose Lorenzen, Abney, Seitze, Miller and Hall on the offensive side of the ball.

Keys to the Win

1. Control Derek Abney. He is a lethal threat to score as both a kick-off and punt returner. In 2002, Abney led the nation with 6 punt and kickoff returns for scores. It is likely that the Gamecocks will have to assign a lone head hunter with great speed and fundamentally sound tackling abilities to cover Abney. The rest of the punt and kickoff team will have to be careful to manage zones so as to not let Abney slip through.

2. Pressure Lorenzen To Throw Quickly. This seems to be a common theme in every preview that I am writing this year. The reason is that the Gamecocks have been beaten by a number of teams over the past two seasons due to an inability to hurry a quarterback. Lorenzen's physical attributes make him a threat because he clearly is not afraid to drop his shoulder into a blitzing linebacker or a defensive end that has worked his way into the Cats backfield. At the same time, Lorenzen doesn't possess good field vision and often makes the mistake of stepping directly into pass rush.

3. Play Fundamentally Sound Football. The Cats are neither the deepest nor the most talented team that the Gamecocks play. They are, however, a team that can beat the Gamecocks if we commit many of the egregious fundamental errors that we did in the 2002 season.

4. Use Superior Offensive Talent to Manipulate Defensive Weaknesses. There doesn't appear to be even one facet of the match up between the Gamecock Offense and the Cat Defense that doesn't favor the Gamecocks. It's up to the Gamecocks to devise a patient offensive plan that causes the Cats to overcompensate thus exposing more critical weaknesses in the Cats game plan.

Bottom Line

Carolina 38
Kentucky 10

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