Can the Cats find new life in 2009? Maybe. There are some encouraging signs.
For one thing, Mike Hartline will be a second-year starter at quarterback. He was so-so as a first-year starter in 2008, completing 55 percent of his passes for 1,666 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. If he falters this fall, the Big Blue might hand the reins to heralded freshman Ryan Mossakowski, who passed for 6,834 yards and ran for another 787 during his high school days in Texas.
The X Factor for UK's offense will be Derrick Locke's knee. The ACL tear he suffered vs. Arkansas last October appeared to be career-threatening. He reportedly is making a strong recovery, however, and might be available for duty in 2009. Even if he can play, though, he is unlikely to perform at the level he did in 2008, when he averaged a team-high 4.8 yards per carry en route to 303 rushing yards, caught 23 passes for 195 yards and averaged 28.5 yards on kickoff returns.
With Locke sidelined for the last half of last season, Tony Dixon wound up leading the 2008 Cats with 430 rushing yards. He's out of eligibility, however, which means Kentucky may need a big year from Alfonso Smith. Smith ranked fourth among Wildcats with 313 rushing yards last fall and caught 16 passes for another 204 yards.
The key figure in Kentucky's offense will be Randall Cobb, who grew up in Alcoa, just 15 minutes from the Tennessee campus. The 5-11, 188-pounder did a little bit of everything as a freshman last fall - catching 21 passes for 197 yards as a receiver, averaging 8.4 yards as a punt returner and starring as a shotgun quarterback in UK's "Wildcat Package." He ran for 316 yards and passed for another 542 in the CatPack, ensuring that he'll get some plays behind center again this season.
The departure of 2008 receiving leader Dicky Lyons (33 receptions for 264 yards) leaves Cobb as UK's most productive returning pass catcher. The receiving options also include wideout Gene McCaskill (15 catches for 181 yards last fall) and 6-6, 242-pound tight end T.C. Drake (12 for 204 last fall).
The 2008 offensive line didn't get much push on run plays but allowed just 13 sacks last season, a figure that was tops in the SEC and No. 4 nationally. The blocking front should be solid again, with four seniors starting and most of the key people back.
Bottom line: Kentucky needs a healthy Locke, an improved Hartline and a productive Cobb to be a potent offense in 2009. That's asking a lot.