2012 Kentucky Preview - The Payoff?
Kenucky SS Martavius Neloms
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Kentucky Wildcats
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C'mon, Kentucky. All rumors aside, you know how to get NBA prospect after NBA prospect to sign on to come to your school. Can't you shift a little of that effort and a wee bit of the recruiting machinery over to the football side?
Head coach: Joker Phillips
3rd year: 11-14
Off. 26, Def. 21, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 24
Ten Best Kentucky Players
1. OG Larry Warford, Sr.
2. WR La'Rod King, Sr.
3. SS Martavius Neloms, Sr.
4. LB Avery Williamson, Jr.
5. DT Mister Cobble, Jr.
6. DE Collins Ukwu, Sr.
7. DT Donte Rumph, Jr.
8. OT Darrian Miller, Soph.
9. LB/DE Alvin Dupree, Soph.
10. PK Craig McIntosh, Sr.
Sep. 1 at Louisville
Sep. 8 Kent State
Sep. 15 WKU
Sep. 22 at Florida
Sep. 29 South Carolina
Oct. 6 Mississippi State
Oct. 13 at Arkansas
Oct. 20 Georgia
Oct. 27 at Missouri
Nov. 3 Vanderbilt
Nov. 10 OPEN DATE
Nov. 17 Samford
Nov. 24 at Tennessee
It's not like Kentucky hasn't tried to put together some strong football teams over the years, and it's not like there hasn't been some measure of success, but there's a hard ceiling on what the program might be able to do. Worst yet, the window might be closing very, very quickly, if it isn't already shut.
Vanderbilt remains Vanderbilt; Georgia has been just okay; and Tennessee has been a pushover. South Carolina has taken advantage of a down East and rose up at just the right time, and Florida stunk over the last few seasons.
And Kentucky has been treading water.
The chance was there to step up and shine during the down period, and UK didn't do it and didn't make the big move it needed to. Soon, very soon, everything will swing back with Missouri joining the fun in the division and with Florida and Tennessee certain to improve. But can the Wildcats keep moving forward, too? Can they use the step back last season to make a leap forward?
They were awful last season offensively finishing 118th in the nation in yards and 117th in scores allowed. The punt return game was horrendous and the offensive line couldn't keep the quarterbacks upright. The passing game was the third-least efficient attack in college football, and the air show only came up with just 136 yards per game.
But for all the problems and with all the ugliness in painful performance after painful performance, UK still went a not-that-bad 5-7. After going to five straight bowl games, no matter how it's sliced, all it would've taken was one extra win to have gotten a 13th game and for the attitude coming into this season to be far different.
Kentucky was worse than it could've ever worried about, and yet it still battled hard in losses to Georgia and Louisville and needing just one more win for a successful year. It will take just a little more offense and a little more tweaking to potentially be just good enough to get back over the hump.
The offense that struggled so much is full of experience at all the key spots with speed all over the place. The line might have had problems and it might have to come up with some new starters at tackle, but it's a good-sized group with strong pieces to work around.
The defense didn't get any help from the offense and still came up with a solid season. Now it has to replace a few irreplaceable stars in linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy and has to hope offenses can't take advantage of the corner problems early on, but the line is experienced and it should be more aggressive and productive.
Can the Wildcats be one game better and get to a bowl game again? It might not seem like anything exciting to shoot for, but in the SEC and with so many problems last year, UK should be in for a far more interesting season.
What to watch for on offense: The quick development of the quarterback situation. The receiving corps is in place with La'Rod King leading a decent and potentially dangerous group of veterans. The running game shouldn't be bad with several backs in the rotation ready to do more. Now the Cats need a quarterback to rely on for the offense to start functioning again. Can Maxwell Smith show he's ready to become a franchise player to build around, or will Morgan Newton make one more push in his final season? Is true freshman Patrick Towles going to be in the equation? The Cats can't be mediocre under center again.
What to watch for on defense: Can the Cats finally come up with a pass rush? There hasn't been too much of one for a long, long time, and last season the defensive front didn't get into the backfield nearly enough. While the pass rush wasn't a total disaster, 20 sacks and 64 tackles for loss weren't enough to be disruptive. It's not like there's a who's who or passing games on the schedule to deal with, but Collins Ukwu and Alvin Dupree have to start making more things happen on the outside, and coming up with more tackles for loss on the inside would be nice. The defense has to be more dangerous and more of a factor.
The team will be far better if … the offense can do something, anything, through the air. The passing game was horrendous, even by SEC standards, coming up with more than 200 yards just twice all season long. The Cats cranked out 283 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Ole Miss, but they were able to beat Tennessee with just 15 passing yards and got by Jacksonville State with 105. However, there weren't enough good passing days to get the offense moving. It doesn't have to be back to the old Hal Mumme days, but averaging 135.6 passing yards per game won't get it done.
The schedule: Where are the sure-thing conference wins? Kentucky could be better – it can't be any worse on offense – but it might not matter in the record. Vanderbilt has to come to Commonwealth Stadium, but the Wildcats will likely be big underdogs against everyone else. That's why there can't be any mistakes early on.
Louisville should be terrific this year, but UK has to find a way to win the opening weekend rivalry game on the road. Kent State and Western Kentucky aren't going to be walks in the park, but they need to be easy wins with a trip to Florida to kick off the SEC season. Getting Mississippi State and a trip to Arkansas aren't easy, but at least there's no LSU or Alabama from the West to deal with.
Best offensive player: Senior OG Larry Warford. It's not really a positive that the team's most important and best offensive player is a right guard, but Warford is a good enough, strong enough run blocker to be the anchor for a retooling front five. At 6-3 and 333 pounds he has the size to go along with years of starting experience as a major building block to work around. Now he's playing for an NFL career.
Best defensive player: Senior S Martavius Neloms. The hope is for Collins Ukwu to become a deadly pass rusher, and it would be nice if Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph rock on the defensive interior, but it's likely going to be Neloms who turns out to be the new star of the show as the team's leading returning tackler and one of the team's most important leaders. He's a big hitter for his size and isn't afraid to mix is up, but he needs to start doing more when the ball is in the air.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Maxwell Smith. He's absolutely, positively, no question about it starting quarterback for the Cats come heck or high water- sort of. The big 6-4, 230-pound bomber took over during the second half of last season and showed promise, while also struggling through a slew of true freshmen mistakes. Morgan Newton was going to be the new star a few years ago, but now it's Smith who's going to get the shot to make the program his. However, if Newton is phenomenal late this summer, the job might be open to try to do something, anything, to improve the passing game.
The season will be a success if … UK wins six games. In the new and improved SEC, and even with the East still a bit down, just getting bowl eligible and going to a sixth post-season game in seven years would be a great success. It's not going to be easy. Kent State, Western Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Samford all have to be home wins, and then it's going to take a few upsets to make it happen. It could happen with a little bit of improvement on offense.
Key game: Sept. 22 at Florida. The Wildcats need to do something splashy. It's been a while since they've come up with something that made the college football world take notice, and coming up with the first win over the Gators since 1986 – and the first in Gainesville since 1979 - might do it. It's the first game for UK outside of the state borders and the only one until having to go to Arkansas in mid-October. It's also the SEC opener, and with South Carolina coming up next, pulling off the shocker over the Gators would do wonders for the program and the season.
2011 Fun Stats:
- Average Yards Per Pass: Opponents 6.8 – Kentucky 4.8
- Penalties: Opponents 74 for 639 yards – Kentucky 59 for 482 yards
- Punt Return Average: Opponents 8.5 – Kentucky 1.8
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