The new guy

The fact Kentucky accomplished the unprecedented feat of playing bowl games each of the past four years may qualify this as the "Golden Age" of Big Blue football.

Now that Wildcat fans have become accustomed to postseason bids on an annual basis, you wonder if first-year head coach Joker Phillips can meet that expectation.

The answer: Who knows? As the only rookie coach in the SEC this year, Phillips is the league's ultimate mystery man. He did quality work coordinating Kentucky's offense the past four years but has never run his own program, even at the high school level.

This much is known: Phillips has a slogan (Operation Win) and a big-time playmaker (junior Randall Cobb). Cobb, a 5-11, 191-pounder who grew up 15 minutes from the University of Tennessee campus in nearby Alcoa, probably meant more to his team than any player in the SEC last fall, except for Florida's Tim Tebow.

Cobb ranked second among all SEC players in touchdowns, third in punt returns, fourth in all-purpose yardage and seventh in scoring. He would have ranked fifth in the league for kickoff returns (26.5 yards), except he didn't have enough runbacks to qualify.

Voted his team's 2009 MVP as a mere sophomore, Cobb led the Cats in receiving with 39 catches for 447 yards and added 573 rushing yards as a direct-snap tailback. He scored 10 touchdowns rushing, four receiving and one on a punt return. He produced the game-winning fourth-quarter TD three times. A big-play specialist, he made a 73-yard punt return vs. Louisiana Monroe, a 61-yard scrimmage run vs. Auburn, a 55-yard pass reception vs. South Carolina and a 46-yard kickoff return vs. Mississippi State. The Associated Press tabbed him first-team All-SEC as an all-purpose player.

Kentucky's second-best player is tailback Derrick Locke, a 5-9, 191-pounder who is almost as versatile as Cobb. Locke rushed for 907 yards last fall, caught 31 passes for another 284 yards and averaged 27.8 yards on kickoff returns, ranking No. 14 nationally in that category.

Finding someone capable of getting the ball to Cobb and Locke will be Joker Phillips' biggest challenge this fall. Senior Mike Hartline has been wildly erratic as an off-and-on starter at quarterback the past two years. Sophomore Morgan Newton, an exceptional runner, showed some promise as a starter during the second half of 2009. Redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski, who missed '09 with a shoulder injury, has the best arm of the three.

Kentucky finished spring practice without a clearcut leader at the QB position. Hartline completed 11 of 24 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown in the Blue/White Game but could not separate himself from Newton (6 of 12, 92 yards) or Mossakowski (6 of 13, 37 yards).

Whoever wins the quarterback job will be operating behind an offensive line that will feature four new starters. Phillips moved to bolster the blocking front by making defensive end Charles Burden the first-team left offensive tackle during spring practice.

Interestingly enough, Phillips has two former Tennessee quarterbacks on his offensive staff - Randy Sanders (QB coach/offensive coordinator) and Tee Martin (receivers coach).

Defensively, Kentucky must replace a couple of good linebackers in Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell, along with star cornerback Trevard Lindley. The Cats hope for big things from 'backer Danny Travathan, who is the leading returning tackler with 82 stops in '09.

As always, Kentucky has very little depth. An injury to Cobb or Locke could turn Joker Phillips' head coaching debut into a disaster. If the Cats can stay reasonably healthy, however, they just might be good enough to notch a fifth consecutive bowl bid.

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