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Return of the offense? Playmakers evoke memories of high-flying 2007 team

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FB 09_10 UK_FL  WEB 029.jpgThere will always be truth to the notion that defense wins championship. It's an adage that's been proven time and time again in athletics.

But when Kentucky football was at its recent finest - a record-setting year in 2007 when the likes of No. 1 and eventual national champion LSU and No. 9 Louisville went down at the hands of the Wildcats - UK had one of the most explosive offenses in the nation.

Spearheaded by offensive stalwarts Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme and Rafael Little, the scoreboard at Commonwealth Stadium routinely posted scores of 30 or more points. In racking up more than 443 yards per game, which ranked 24th in the nation, and more than 36 points per game, 15th in the country, the passing game showcased aerial attacks that would have made the Air Force blush.

Recently, things have changed.

The departures of the high-flying 2007 stars forced UK to take on a new identity the past two years. The offensive train of thought was to manage the game, not make mistakes and let the defense keep the team in the game.

In 2008, the offense ranked 106th nationally and 64th scoring. Last year, despite a tough-nosed, top-25 rushing offense, UK was 93rd in total offense and 70th in scoring.

The offense was becoming more of a liability than reliability.

As Kentucky enters the 2010 season with an arsenal of offensive weapons returning at the skill positions, the Cats are hopeful that the offense will return this year. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders believes it has the makings to be back, at least potentially.

"I think it has potential to be because we obviously have some weapons outside," Sanders said. "We had some guys (in 2007) that could take the short play and turn it into a long play. It made us pretty explosive. I think we have some of that same potential, but that's potential. Potential means it hasn't been done consistently yet."

At least not as a team. In terms of the parts, the pieces are in place for an explosive 2010.

Do-everything Randall Cobb returns as one of the most dynamic players in the Southeastern Conference, joining one of the premier tailbacks in the league in Derrick Locke. The wide receiver position, which has been one of the biggest disappointments over the last two years, has seen several potential stars emerge, including Chris Matthews, La'Rod King and Gene McCaskill.

There is, of course, the uncertainty of the starting quarterback spot, but both Mike Hartline and Morgan Newton have game experience and have tallied several big wins. The offensive line must replace four starters from a season ago, but as head coach Joker Phillips said at Friday's Media Day, most of the backups received significant playing time a year ago.

Having said all that, is this year's offense the most explosive UK has seen since the 2007 season? Can fans expect a vast improvement from the past two years?

"I would say you are correct," Hartline said. "I think this is a lot deeper than we have been, especially at the receiver position and the offensive line. If you look across the board, they all somewhere in their career have experience. We have deep running backs and I think we have some very talented tight ends that are looking to make their appearance this season, especially with the tight ends coach, Coach (Greg) Nord. He is going to get them squared away. I think the sky is the limit."

Hartline isn't alone in that belief. Cobb, who will be counted on to produce more than any one player, said the Cats are deeper and more versatile than they have been since he's been in Kentucky blue and white.

"We think we should be able to score 35, 40 points a game," Cobb said. "That's the kind of attitude we need to go in with."

(For those worrying about Cobb and the Wildcat package this year, rest easy. Despite Cobb's wishes to focus more on wide receiver and take the "slash" out of his title, Phillips said he will continue to utilize Cobb at quarterback because the ball has to be in his hands.)

Thumbnail image for Cobb escapes.jpgThe key will likely be balance. Last year, en route to rushing for more than 171 yards per game, Kentucky formed one of the stoutest rushing offenses in nation. The problem lied with the passing game, which was nearly non-existent at times.

"If we want to win, we have to pass," Locke said. "We have to. We have to make the defenses play honest. Last year we knew it was a spot we were going to be shaky at, but now it's got to get better. I'm not Superman. I can't do it by myself. They understand that I need them just as much as they need me. Everybody needs to be on the same page if we want to take it to the next level."

The passing game certainly doesn't have to be as good as the 2007 team when Woodson and UK tossed the ball for close to 300 yards per game. But a similar ground attack to last year's and an improved air attack would make for a much more potent offense.

The ability to pass the ball on top of a consistent ground attack would put opponents on their heels, allowing more room for the rushing game and opening up the playbook for more shots downfield.

"I feel like we've made huge improvements since the spring," Locke said. "I'm not concerned with the passing game at all. Our wide receivers and quarterbacks are going to get it done. I feel like we're as close as we've ever been since I've been here to really get over that hump and win those games some don't think we can win. We're going to have a big year."

A big year, if nothing else, because of the wide receiver position. For one thing, it's one of the deepest position groups on this year's team, with seven or eight guys capable of cracking the top three spots.

"We haven't seen the best of Chris Matthews, and if you look at him, his speed and what he can do, that scares me," Newton said. "La'Rod is going to be a year older. He is as good as there is. Geno (McCaskill), E.J. Fields, (Matt) Roark, those guys are big fast receivers. Nobody has seen Brian Adams yet and he is as good as the others. We have a lot of guys that are good and a lot of guys that can play." (Speaking of Adams, wide receivers coach Tee Martin raved in the spring that the two-way athletic freak is one of the fastest players on the team and could make an immediate impact.)

When the quarterbacks start salivating over who they're throwing to, the passing game usually flourishes.

"It allows you to maybe keep your eyes on that guy another half a count," Sanders said. "As a quarterback , you don't have long to look at somebody. You need that trust that they're going to get it done. We have some guys that I think our quarterbacks have some confidence in."

And confidence, more than anything, is beaming more than ever as the UK football team opens up fall camp. Will the offense be as productive as the 2007 team that put up eye-popping numbers? Probably not. That would be asking a lot.

But it is expected to get better this year. Whether you're talking about the wide receivers, the stable of tailbacks behind Locke or the experience at quarterback, there are playmakers across the board on offense.

"They were a great offense (in 2007) and we see it every day," Newton said. "We won't be that offense, but we plan to be as good as we can be and hopefully better. They had a lot great guys that put up a lot of yards, but we want to be the best we can be. That's what we aspire to be and that's better than what they were."

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