Head Coach: Joker Phillips often feels like his back is against the wall. He inherited a stable program from Rich Brooks that actually was making a little noise in the SEC. He had former NFL players Randall Cobb and Danny Trevathan anchoring the offense and defense. But those days are gone. Phillips has to find a way to get that type of talent back on campus. How does he do that? Cobb nor Trevathan were very highly recruited players, and both were out-of-state players. Phillips played at Kentucky; he’s spent more than 50 percent of his coaching career at Kentucky. However, Phillips is 11-14 for his career, finishing below .500 in both seasons as the skipper, and the Cats missed their first bowl game since 2005 last year. Even though he is a Kentucky guy, the Cats are going to have to find a way to win and make some positive noise in the East, or his days could be numbered.
Running Back: Running back is a deep position for the Cats with some returning firepower. While CoShik Williams returns as the best running back statistically, Josh Clemons and Raymond Sanders could be the players to watch here. Clemons tore his meniscus in his knee last year, in early October, but he should be back and healthy this season. Clemons is a talented back who has a bright future. Sanders struggled with a knee all last season, but even he looks like a more-than-capable back. Williams returns as the leading rusher with 486 yards on 118 carries and three touchdowns. Add in freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor, and this position becomes a position of strength and depth.
Offensive Line: The biggest concern exiting spring heading into this season is the offensive line. Losing three starters is never good for any position, but when it’s along the offensive front, there are always more questions than answers. This is a work-in-progress position right now. Larry Warford and Matt Smith return as starters, so there is some leadership returning at the position. Rising sophomore Darrian Miller and rising junior Kevin Mitchen only combined for three starts last year. So, while there’s some leadership at the position, there is largely inexperience. The biggest concern for this coaching staff heading into summer and into this season is offensive line. The staff is going to have to find some guys who are willing to bust a grape up front.
Quarterback: One of the biggest updates that came from this spring is that Max Smith will be the guy in game one. Now, he may not exit game one as the starter, but if the season started tomorrow, he’d be penciled in the lineup. Morgan Newton missed spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Smith did indeed have a strong spring, but he struggled somewhat in the spring game. There will still be open competition throughout fall camp and into early season. Newton and talented freshman signal caller Patrick Towles will give Smith all he wants in competition. Newton was a highly regarded prospect, but he has yet to live up his hype. There is still time, though. This starting job could be a week-by-week competition – what have you done for me lately type deal.
Wide Receiver & Tight End: The biggest progress made this spring was at the receiver position. Statistically, LaRod King is the top returner; however, item No. 1 this spring was to find another guy who can bust a grape at receiver. That grape busting came in the form of Demarco Robinson. Robinson stepped up to the plate and answered the call. He caught nine passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Freshman Daryl Collins is also expected to contribute as well. King returns as the top pass catcher who had 598 yards last season on 40 catches and seven touchdowns. But even King could have played much better, as he dropped several crucial passes in several games. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson should play well, taking some pressure off the run game for the Cats. Shields and Robinson combined for 10 receptions for 54 yards and one touchdown. But that’s more of a reflection of the quarterback play than anything.
Defensive Line: The defensive line should be the strength of the Cats next season. All three regular starters return in juniors Mister Cobble (likely the best name in the SEC) and Donte Rumph and senior Collins Ukwu. Also returning will be defensive end Taylor Wyndham. Yes, Wyndham is the guy who knocked out Tim Tebow. Cobble returns with 33 tackles and three tackles for loss. Rumph returns 31 tackles and also three tackles for loss. Ukwu is the most productive of this group, and he returns after 6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He is the anchor of this group.
Back 7: The loss of Trevathan is devastating for this defense, but Avery Williamson stepped up quite nicely this spring and really did show improvement. He is expected to anchor the defense at middle linebacker. Williamson led all players in this year’s spring game, and he has game experience from last year with 49 tackles. While the defense did show signs of improvement this spring, there are several major holes to fill. The Cats have four new starting linebackers, one being Williamson, and two new starting corners. Alvin Dupress is a guy who should step up at linebacker. Former running back Marcus Caffey moved to defensive back to help with some depth. Caffey is almost 6-0, and he can play against the bigger receivers and be a positive matchup in that respect.
Where does the program go from here? The Cats have two main areas of concern as they enter summer camp on into the season: offensive line and developing the new defense under Rick Minter. There are very few known players at either offensive line or on the defense.
While Kentucky may never compete for an SEC Championship, they have proven in recent history they can be respected and can compete with anyone. For Joker Phillips, it’s just getting back to that level and recruiting the right players to get them there.