Top 50 Countdown: No. 38 Kentucky

Coach: Rich Brooks | Staff
In 2006: 8-5, 4-4 SEC; Beat Clemson 28-20 in Music City Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 7. Defense: 8.
Key losses: C Matt McCutchan, OG Trai Williams, OT Michael Aitcheson and DT Lamar Mills.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Kentucky's high-flying offense in 2006 recalled the days of Hal Mumme and Tim Couch. With seven starters returning, including all of the top skill players, this year's unit could be just as successful. Quarterback Andre' Woodson led the SEC in passing with help from his receiver duo of Keenan Burton and Dicky Lyons Jr. For all the success in the passing game, Kentucky struggled in the run game (ranked 101st in the country), especially while Rafael Little was hurt. The Wildcats' balance improved when he returned to the lineup.

KENTUCKY TOP 10
Andre' Woodson led the SEC in passing in 2006.

1. QB Andre' Woodson
2. WR Keenan Burton
3. RB Rafael Little
4. LB Wesley Woodyard
5. TE Jacob Tamme
6. S Marcus McClinton
7. CB Trevard Lindley
8. WR Dicky Lyons Jr.
9. LB Braxton Kelley
10. DT Myron Pryor
Best player: Woodson. From Tim Couch to Jared Lorenzen to Woodson, Kentucky hasn't had trouble finding top college quarterbacks. Inconsistent in his first year as a starter in 2005, Woodson blossomed last year. He completed 63 percent of his passes and threw for 3,515 yards and 31 touchdowns.

Most overrated: The whole offense. Don't give this offense too much credit despite its numbers. True, it was in the top 10 nationally in passing. But it was only fifth in the SEC in total offense and scoring offense. Kentucky mustered only one touchdown combined in its toughest road games against national champion Florida and Sugar Bowl champion LSU.

Most underrated: TE Jacob Tamme. Tamme gets overlooked in this offense. Woodson, receiver Keenan Burton and running back Rafael Little get most of the headlines. Tamme, first-team All-SEC last year, can be dangerous. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior finished the 2006 season with 32 catches and 386 yards.

Must step up: RB Rafael Little. The key for Little will be to stay healthy. He accounted for 1,982 all-purpose yards as a sophomore, but was limited to nine games last year due to injury. He's recovering from offseason knee surgery once again. If he can reclaim his 2005 form this season, the Kentucky offense will be difficult to stop.

Shoes to fill: C Matt McCutchan. Offensive line is the biggest question mark in this offense. Nowhere do the Wildcats lose more experience than at center, where McCutchan started 30 games over the last three years. His replacement is slated to be senior Eric Scott, who had an excellent spring after moving from defensive end from tight end.

Impact newcomer: OG Jess Beets. The junior college transfer arrived in spring and could take the right guard spot vacated by Trai Williams.

Position battle: Right tackle. With many of the other positions settled, this will be the main position battle on the offense for the fall. Michael Aitcheson held the position for the last two years. Junior Josh Winchell and sophomore Justin Jeffries, who played in 12 games as a true freshman last year, will vie for the right tackle spot.

New in 2007: Why change what worked so well last year? Nearly all of the key players at the skill positions return, leaving only the offensive line to retool for 2007. The difference for this year is that Kentucky won't sneak up on anyone in the conference after winning eight games including the Music City Bowl last season.

Grade the units:
QB: A. Andre Woodson has thrown a school-record 162 passes without an interception and continues to improve.
RB: B. Little, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith give this group explosion and depth. A healthy year from Little should improve the 101st-ranked rushing offense.
WR/TE: A. Burton and Lyons combined for 1,858 yards and 21 touchdowns last year. He's not a wide receiver, but Tamme is a good player as well.
OL: C. The left side of the line returns, but the rest of this group is a rebuilding project. A junior college transfer is slated to play right guard, and a converted tight end will be at center.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: If the defense could have caught up to the offense last season, Kentucky would have been in much better shape. The Wildcats ranked below No. 100 in the country in total defense, rushing defense and pass defense. Coordinator Mike Archer left for N.C. State in the offseason, leaving defensive backs coach Steve Brown. The defense gave up a ton of yards in 2006, but still helped the Wildcats finish second in the country in turnover margin. After finishing with nine more turnovers than takeaways in 2005, Kentucky was plus-15 in 2006.

Best player: LB Wesley Woodyard. The senior linebacker has led the team in tackles for the last two seasons. The quick veteran will push to repeat that feat for a third consecutive year. He made 122 stops as a junior last year. He also led the team with 9.5 tackles for a loss.

Kentucky Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 8 Kent State
Sept. 15 Louisville
Sept. 22 at Arkansas
Sept. 29 Florida Atlantic
Oct. 4 at South Carolina
Oct. 13 LSU
Oct. 20 Florida
Oct. 27 Mississippi State
Nov. 10 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 17 at Georgia
Nov. 24 Tennessee
Most overrated: Micah Johnson. Kentucky's top prospect arrived in Lexington with a ton of fanfare, but limited production followed him in his true freshman season. He started two games and finished with 29 tackles playing behind Braxton Kelley.

Most underrated: S Marcus McClinton. Once healthy, McClinton proved to be a solid contributor in the secondary. He started all 13 games last year after missing nine games in 2005. He was third on the team with 65 tackles and padded Kentucky's SEC-leading turnover margin with four interceptions and five forced fumbles.

Must step up: DE Jeremy Jarmon. Kentucky struggled to get production out of its defensive line last year, but the Wildcats were at their best when Jarmon was at full strength at the end of his freshman season. Jarmon got all four of his sacks in the final four games last year.

Shoes to fill: DT Lamar Mills. Kentucky lost one of its most experienced players with the departure of fifth-year senior Mills.

Position battle: Cornerback. The secondary returns three starters, but the cornerback spot vacated by Karl Booker is open. Sophomores Paul Warford and E.J. Adams and juniors Shomari Moore and Ahmad Grigsby are all competing for the position.

New in 2007: The Kentucky defense improved its numbers last year and was still among the worst in the SEC. Coordinator Mike Archer left for N.C. State, but replacement Steve Brown is plenty familiar with the team and system. Brown spent the last four seasons as defensive backs coach.

Grade the units:
DL: C. Jarmon and tackle Myron Pryor are serviceable returners on the line.
LB: B-plus. Woodyard and Kelley led the team in tackles. This unit should only get better if Johnson improves as a sophomore.
DB: B-minus. Safety McClinton and cornerback Trevard Lindley give this group potential to improve.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: Kentucky brings back both return men on the only team in the country that was in the top 10 in punt returns (ranked No. 1) and kickoff returns (10th). Both kicking specialists are back this season. The punt coverage team also allowed on 3.6 yards per return last year.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
At least Kentucky gets Florida, LSU and Louisville in Lexington this year, but the results could still be the same. Road trips to Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia also make contending for an SEC East title an uphill climb, even if the offense remains productive and the defense improves from last year.There are enough winnable games on this schedule for Kentucky to go on back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since 1998-99. Depending on how the BCS picture shakes out for the SEC, Kentucky could be headed anywhere from the Independence to Chick-fil-A bowls.
Best player: PR Little. Little's shiftiness as a running back translates well to the punt return game. In limited duty last year he finished with 22.6 yards per return and one touchdown.

Grade the units:
K: B-minus. As a freshman, Lones Seiber was 11 of 19 on field goals, including 5-for-11 from longer than 30 yards.
P: C-plus. Tim Masthay returns after averaging 39.2 yards per kick. He also handles kickoffs.
KR: A-minus. Burton (24.7 yards per return, one TD) and Lyons (24.1 yards) are just as dangerous as return men as they are receivers.
PR: A. Like the running game, the punt return game will get a major boost from a full season from Little.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: After starting 9-25 in his first three seasons at Kentucky, Rich Brooks was on the hot seat. He escapes that dubious distinction this year after coming off an 8-5 season and a win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl. The key this year will be keeping Kentucky from basking too much in its success. The Wildcats won't catch anyone by surprise. Brooks will also try to get the 'Cats over the hump by beating a top team. Kentucky was handled easily on the road by the elite teams on their schedule: Florida, LSU and Louisville.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: B-minus. The turnaround year was big for Brooks, but it's still tough to ignore his first three seasons in Lexington.
Offense: A. Coordinator Joker Phillips has built an imposing offensive unit at Kentucky. First-year quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders was instrumental in the development of Woodson.
Defense: C-minus. First-year coordinator Steve Brown needs to turn around the defense, but it appears he has the tools to do it.

Special teams: B-plus. From Derek Abney to Rafael Little and Keenan Burton, coordinator Steve Ortmayer has a knack for finding dangerous returners.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 37.


 

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