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February 28, 2012

SEC Spring Preview: Kentucky


The next time Missouri plays a game it will be as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Over the next few weeks, PowerMizzou.com will introduce Tiger fans to their new league. We will do a question and answer session with our counterparts at each SEC school prior to spring football. Today, we stay in the state of Alabama and take a look at Kentucky with Ben Jones, who covers Wildcat football for CatsIllustrated.com.

Kentucky is obviously kind of the outlier in the SEC in that football has never been king. With that attitude is it realistic for UK to ever compete consistently in the league?

Jones: "Consistent is the operative word in that question. I don't know if Kentucky can ever compete for SEC East championships on a year-in, year-out basis. Florida is one of the best programs in the nation, Georgia is probably one of the top 10 programs in the country, and Tennessee can certainly compete for national titles.

Then you consider South Carolina's rise in the past couple of years and add Missouri to the mix. Calling it an uphill fight for Kentucky would be a monumental understatement. Before Rich Brooks arrived in Lexington and helped push the program to six or seven wins a season, UK had a losing record against Vanderbilt all-time. That's what a coach at Kentucky is up against.

People in the program will tell you then can do it. The fans will tell you they can do it. I asked Joker Phillips as he was offensivecoordinator a couple years ago if UK was capable of breaking out. His answer: Why not us? They're certainly optimistic, but history is against them. Not to mention 13 other very strong SEC football programs.

It is possible for Kentucky, under the right circumstances, to make some real noise in the conference race. Get the right coach with a unique system, a strong core of talented players and a schedule with a break or two and Kentucky can certainly break out and win nine games in a year - maybe even more. But I don't know if anything more than that is possible."

As far as the current team goes, what are the Wildcats' strengths headed into spring ball?

Jones: "It's not easy to find strengths on a team that went 5-7 and lost its two or three best players.

The defensive line might be one, though. One thing I've always thought is that the famed 'SEC speed' you hear about isn't so different at wide receiver, running back or in the secondary. Those guys are going to be fast no matter where you look. There are some really athletic defensive linemen in the SEC, though.

The coaches feel like they've got a handful of quality SEC defensive linemen in junior defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble along with senior defensive end Collins Ukwu. Ukwu came to UK as a rangy 220-pounder with upside, and is entering his third year as a starter. He missed about half the 2011 season with a sprained knee and still has room to improve.

Rumph and Cobble are a pair of beefy guys that can move, and they anchor the hybrid defense that coordinator Rick Minter runs. Rumph, Cobble and Ukwu are the three down linemen on most plays. In the scheme, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end might rush the passer or play a more traditional role. Then there are two linebackers and a hybrid safety/linebacker who can use his speed to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage. You don't see a lot of coaches try something new on defense, so it's fun to watch if you know what to look for."

What are the major questions they have to answer?

Jones: "Plenty of questions. Morgan Newton started the season at quarterback, but got injured and lost his job to true freshman Maxwell Smith[/db ]. Smith was solid if unspectacular for a freshman, but highly-touted in-state recruit [db]Patrick Towles is expected to play at least some at quarterback as a true freshman this year.

The running backs were racked by injuries, and it's not really clear who holds what role there. The wide receivers dropped a ton of passes, though they add redshirt freshman Daryl Collins, and he should help. The tight ends were an afterthought, and the starter is gone there. The offensive line loses three starters.

Linebacker Danny Trevathan led the conference in tackles in 2010 and 2011, but he's graduated now, along with two other starters at linebacker. Both starting cornerbacks have graduated and there's very little depth behind them. Punter Ryan Tydlacka was one of their best players a year ago, and he's gone as well.

There are always some questions that are answered early in spring camp, so things probably aren't as bad as the previous three paragraphs have made it sound. But this was not a good team a year ago, and they lose a fair amount of players."

What are realistic expectations for this year?

Jones: "Fans would be happy with a step in the right direction and some signs that there's a group of young players who will keep it moving that way. That means Phillips probably has to get this team to 6-6 or better (though it's hard to find more than six wins on the schedule).

Quarterback Patrick Towles is the best recruit in the class and while I'd be surprised if he opens the season as the starter, I'd be more surprised if he's not playing serious minutes by the end of it.

True freshman running back Josh Clemons won the starting job early in the season before he was lost to a knee injury, and getting him back will be big. There are some tools to be found at wide receiver, if those guys can develop into reliable targets. There are also guys who
played on defense as true freshmen (linebacker Alvin 'Bud' Dupree, safeties Ashely Lowery and Glenn Faulker, defensive tackle Christian Coleman), and they should all be better.

Kentucky had gone to five straight bowl games before last season, the best streak in school history. Phillips probably needs to start another bowl streak this year."

Because it's UK, I have to ask. What are the odds Missouri fans and Kentucky fans will have a chance to get to know each other in New Orleans in a few weeks?

Jones: "I've only watched a little bit of Missouri, so I won't pretend to know the Tigers better than you or your readers.

I will say that this is the best team John Calipari has had since he got here. It's not as deep as his first team, but the Wildcats can beat teams through defense alone right now. Anthony Davis is one of the best shot blockers college basketball has ever seen, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can score five points in a game and still be the best player on the floor. His defense is that good.

Terrence Jones was the SEC player of the year last season, but he's just another cog in the machine that is this team. Doron Lamb is shooting 48 percent from three, point guard Marquis Teague is playing the best he has all season, and senior Darius Miller can steady the team in difficult moments.

It's not a stretch at all to think that Kentucky has six guys who could be drafted this summer (if three freshmen come out). Some people say you can't win a national championship with a team as young as this one. The tournament is a crapshoot, but John Calipari has a great chance at proving them wrong."

Ben Jones is the Kentucky football beat writer for CatsIllustrated.com.

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