April 1, 2009

Kentucky looks for big-play threat

Kentucky has won three consecutive bowls for the first time in school history. Whether the Wildcats make it four in a row could depend on whether they can upgrade their passing attack.

The Wildcats won the Music City Bowl in 2006 and '07 with a high-flying offense, but UK relied heavily on its defense last season. Kentucky lacked stability at quarterback and couldn't develop any big-play receiving threats.

Kentucky figures to spend spring practice trying to polish its passing attack. The Wildcats must break in plenty of first-year starters on defense, so they probably will have to score more points than they did a year ago.

Here's a look at the Wildcats as they prepare for spring drills.

kentucky AT-A-GLANCE
Mike Hartline returns at quarterback for the Wildcats.
Coach: Rich Brooks
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 SEC. Beat East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.
Spring schedule: April 1-25
Offense (8): WR E.J. Adams, WR/QB Randall Cobb, FB John Conner, TE T.C. Drake, G Zipp Duncan, C Jorge Gonzalez, QB Mike Hartline, T Justin Jeffries.
Defense (4): E Jeremy Jarmon, LB Micah Johnson, CB Trevard Lindley, T Corey Peters.
Special teams (1): K Lones Seiber.
Positions of strength

Kentucky has plenty of reason to feel good about its pass defense. Trevard Lindley's decision to return to school for his senior season gives the Wildcats a legitimate All-America candidate at one cornerback spot. Lindley led the SEC in pass breakups last season. The Wildcats also should get a boost from the return of cornerback Paul Warford, who started games in 2006 and 2007 before sitting out the '08 season for personal reasons. Kentucky also could have one of the SEC's best pass rushers in Jeremy Jarmon, particularly if he can match his production from the 2007 season. Kentucky will miss departed offensive tackle Garry Williams, but the Wildcats return three starters on the offensive line.

Positions of need

Kentucky never found a big-play receiver to fill the void after Dicky Lyons Jr. suffered a career-ending injury midway through the 2008 season. The passing attack struggled all season, and the Wildcats eventually utilized a run-oriented offense with Randall Cobb at quarterback. The Wildcats plan to move Cobb back to receiver while giving Mike Hartline a chance to regain the starting quarterback position as they attempt to throw the ball more. Perhaps Cobb is the answer. The Wildcats certainly need someone to step up in the receiving corps. UK also needs two new starting linebackers.

Keep an eye on

CB Winston Guy: As one of the best athletes on the team, Guy could grab an expanded role in the secondary - whether it's at cornerback or safety. Guy, a sophomore, is versatile enough to play either position.

LB Danny Trevathan: Although he only recorded five tackles as a part-time player last season, Trevathan impressed the coaching staff with his ferocious hitting ability. Micah Johnson is Kentucky's only returning starter at linebacker, so Trevathan a sophomore will get every opportunity to earn more playing time.

DE Collins Ukwu: After arriving on campus last year weighing just 220 pounds, Ukwu has added 30 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame. Now that he has grown a bit, Ukwu could challenge for a starting spot. Jarmon is a sure starter at one end spot, but the other starting position is up for grabs.

His time is now

Kentucky uses the committee approach with its running backs, so senior Alfonso Smith has spent much of his career sharing carries with Tony Dixon and Derrick Locke. Dixon has graduated and Locke is recovering from a knee injury, which gives Smith a chance to prove he deserves an expanded role. Smith always has possessed plenty of speed, but coaches want to see him show more toughness while running between the tackles.

The buzz

Kentucky won a bowl for the third consecutive season in 2008, but the Wildcats bore little resemblance to the squads that won back-to-back Music City Bowls in 2006 and '07. Kentucky made its move up the SEC standings in '06 and '07 with a high-flying offense that featured Andre Woodson throwing to Steve Johnson and Keenan Burton. With all those guys gone in '08, Kentucky ranked just 96th in the nation in passing offense and 106th in total offense. The Wildcats want to upgrade their passing attack this season. They're counting on more production from Hartline and are hoping for better play from their receivers. Kentucky's offense has to perform better for the Wildcats to return to a bowl because the defense could suffer from the loss of seven starters.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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