Firepower fix

Kentucky featured some of the most explosive offense talent in college football last season. Too bad none of it is returning for this season.

Graduation put the big hurt on the Big Blue, which will be without most of the players who helped it rank first among SEC teams in passing offense and third in total offense last fall en route to averaging 36.5 points per game.

Gone is Andre Woodson, who led the league in passing (285.3 yards per game) and passing touchdowns (40). Gone is Steve Johnson, who ranked second among SEC players in receiving yards per game (80.1). Gone is Keenan Burton, who ranked fourth among SEC players in receptions per game (5.5). Gone is Rafael Little, who ranked third among SEC players in both rushing yards per game (101.3) and all-purpose yards per game (148.7). Gone is Jacob Tamme, who caught more passes (56) for more yards (619) than any other SEC tight end.

Simply put, Kentucky probably lost more offensive firepower from 2007 to 2008 than any program in college football.

Speaking at the recent SEC Media Days, UK head coach Rich Brooks conceded that, "Offensively we lose a lot of very, very productive players.... But I feel very good about the people that have an opportunity to replace them."

The big question, of course, is who will replace Woodson at quarterback. Mike Hartline, a 6-6, 204-pound sophomore, completed 4 of 6 passes for 34 yards in mop-up duty last season. Curtis Pulley, a junior who redshirted last season, is a 6-4, 200-pounder whose mobility nearly enabled him to beat out Woodson for the first-team job in August of 2006.

Pulley and Hartline finished spring practice in a "virtual tie," according to Brooks.

"They're both better runners than Andre," the coach added. "I think the sack total will go down because they're more athletic guys that can pull the ball down on a broken play and make something positive happen.

"Curtis is faster. He's a 4.47 guy. But Hartline is a good and willing runner and a good athlete. It's going to be an interesting competition. I feel good about both of them. And it's conceivable that both of them could see action, more so than what has happened at Kentucky over the last two years, where Andre's taken virtually every snap."

Most likely the tailback duties will be shared by Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith. Locke averaged 5.5 yards per carry en route to 521 yards last fall, while Dixon averaged 5.7 on his way to 411 yards. Smith carried just 21 times but averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per rush.

"Tony is our most experienced back but he's struggled with injuries," Brooks noted. "He's never had a healthy season but he's a play-maker. I think that he goes into fall camp as the number one guy.

"We have Alfonso Smith, who also has had injury problems ... and Derrick Locke, who played and had a major role on our team last year.... So I think the competition is going to be great. What we need to find out is whether Tony can be a bell cow, whether he can be the guy that can carry the heavy load, or whether it will be running back by committee."

While the outlook is a bit muddled at quarterback and tailback, there is no question who the go-to guy will be at wide receiver. That would be Dicky Lyons, who caught 56 passes for 655 yards and 7 touchdowns last fall.

"The receiving position, other than Dicky Lyons, is still up in the air," Brooks said. "I would say the receiving position is the biggest question going into the season as far as who's going to be second, who's going to be third, who's going to be fourth. It's possible freshmen could play a role in that pecking order."

Despite the loss of the vast majority of last season's firepower, Kentucky's head man believes the Big Blue can put up big numbers again in 2008.

"I think that we're going to be a very good offensive football team," he said, adding that "This will be the best offensive line we've had since I've been at Kentucky."

The key question: Do the Cats have enough weapons to exploit it?


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