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Eight football storylines to watch this spring

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Kentucky football begins spring practice Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility. The first seven practices are open to the public (schedule here), plus the annual Blue/White Spring Game on April 23 at 3 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium.

We'll have more coverage as the spring season gets underway, especially when basketball season ends, but until then, here are eight storylines to watch for this spring (and no, there is no significance of choosing eight storylines):

4448122.jpeg1. Newton's the man: Really, for the first time in four years, there's an actual frontrunner for the quarterback position. That isn't to say there won't be some type of competition - Joker Phillips continues to be impressed with early enrollee Maxwell Smith and said he'll push Newton for the job - but Ryan Mossakowski's abrupt transfer basically means the job is Newton's to lose.

Newton will start the spring getting the first-team reps, and he's shown flashes that he's talented enough to lead the offense (971 career passing yards and six touchdowns), but will he embrace the role of being the guy? Will he take ownership of the offense? Will the fact that he's not enveloped in a quarterback controversy give him more confidence, or will he throw away a prime opportunity?

"The thing is, Morgan is a talent," Phillips said. "We've got to be more efficient in the passing game, no question about that. But we also want to see Morgan take control of this offense and lead them in the right direction. The right direction is at the goal line. He's definitely talented enough."

Newton has been groomed and touted for the job for a long time, but he's always had to look over his shoulder or ahead at another quarterback. This spring, it's his turn to lead the UK offense.

"It's a little bit different (without a quarterback battle), but you've got to stay humble and continue to get better," Newton said. "I've got another year in the offense, been working a lot on footwork and stuff like that. I've had another year to get familiar with things we've got going on."

2. Replacing Cobb: Speaking of Newton, who is he going to throw the ball to? His primary target and the lifeblood of the program over the last few years, Randall Cobb, is headed to the NFL. Cobb was Mr. Do Everything. He caught passes, ran the Wildcat formation, and returned punts and kickoffs. He left the school as the all-time leader in touchdowns.

But for everything UK will have to replace on the field in the absence of Cobb, replacing his intangibles might be the most difficult task this spring. Cobb was the emotional leader last year and put the team on his back on numerous occasions. Who will be that guy this year?

In terms of the receiving position, Kentucky has depth in La'Rod King, Matt Roark, E.J. Fields and Brian Adams, plus a ridiculously loaded group at tight end that includes seven players. But as for the guy that can step in and be the emotional leader and be a game changer, Phillips mentioned King and running back Raymond Sanders, who will fill in for the departed Derrick Locke, as two possibilities.

Instead of looking at it as an unenviable task, Phillips is choosing to characterize it as a challenge, similar to the offensive exodus after the 2007 season.

"For some people, it's a concern," Phillips admitted. "For us, it's not. It's a challenge. It's an opportunity."

3. Building a new defensive frame: The Kentucky players received a two-week crash course of Rick Minter's 3-4 approach before the BBVA Compass Bowl to some mild success. This spring, the foundation of the defensive frame will be built on a defense that returns its top 11 tacklers.

The defensive base won't be a complete overhaul. In fact, Phillips said the formation will still be four-down linemen with more defensive backs on the field.

"We'll have more of a 4-2-5 (look)," Phillips said. "We'll have two linebackers. (Ridge) Wilson will be a hybrid type of guy where he'll go play some defensive end, some rush end, play some linebacker when we get into some heavy packages. Ridge allows us to be able to do that. You'll see Winston Guy playing a little closer to the ball in some of our packages, so that's the difference. When you do that, you get faster. When you move Ridge to defensive end or rush back, or you move Taylor Wyndham inside and you move Winston Guy down in the box, you do nothing but make yourself more athletic and a lot faster."

Ultimately, it will be a hybrid offense with a more athletic feel to it. The defense should be better equipped to defense the pass-happy and spread offenses of college football.

4. Brian "Willie Mays" Adams: The second-year, super-athletic wide receiver, who Phillips has nicknamed Willie Mays, is expected to take on a much larger role this year, but he's also become one of Gary Henderson's starters and best players on the UK baseball team. It's a different role than it was last year for Adams when he was first learning the ropes at football and wasn't playing much with baseball.

Instead of choosing one sport over the other, both coaches are allowing Adams to play each one full time. When the baseball team is on the road, Adams will go with the baseball team. When baseball is at home, he'll practice with football in the morning and then play baseball later in the afternoon or night.

On April 23, the day of the Blue/White Spring Game and home baseball game with Arkansas, Adams will try to play in both.

"You're concerned that he stays healthy and you're concerned that it doesn't leave him with zero energy, but he's a big, strong kid," Henderson said. "He's really smart. He's a high-energy person, a high-energy player. I suspect he's going to be fine."

5. Who won't be practicing: Spring is all about development, but coaches never want improvement at the cost of injury. Phillips will hold left tackle Chandler Burden and wide receiver Gene McCaskill out of spring practice while they recover from injuries.

Burden had shoulder surgery in December and missed the bowl game against Pittsburgh. Burden is nearing full strength, but the coaches are going to limit him to only non-contact drills in the spring as a precaution.

McCaskill, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered a slight setback with swelling and will likely sit out this spring.

Early additions this spring include Smith, linebacker Tim Patterson and defensive lineman Jabari Johnson. 

6. Developing offensive line depth: Although Kentucky must replace a bundle of playmakers on offense, the blow of losing Cobb and Co. is cushioned a bit by the return of four starters on the offensive line. With those four guys (Burden at tackle, Stuart Hines at left guard, Matt Smith at center and Larry Warford at right guard) cemented into the line, the objective for Phillips and offensive line coach Mike Summers this spring will be developing depth behind them.

Senior Jake Lanefski, who was needed for depth at center last year, will get more reps at the guard position this year. Tevan Eatmon-Nared is up to 325 pounds and is listed behind Burden at left tackle. Guard Kevin Mitchell has dropped 10 to 15 pounds but has gotten stronger as he's gotten leaner, Phillips said.

4281555.jpeg7. Danny's development: Phillips has no doubts that senior linebacker Danny Trevathan is one of the best linebackers in the country. That's why he had the chance to forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft a year early.

So what's the next step for a guy that led the Southeastern Conference in tackles last year, specifically for this spring?

"Danny's got to be more of a leader," Phillips said. "Danny's going to play hard and have 15, 20 tackles a game. We need Danny to be a vocal leader for us. Danny put on probably 10, 15 pounds, looks really, really good. That's not a man crush. That's just telling it how it is."

8. A year wiser: For the first time since taking the job in January 2010, Phillips took a vacation last week. Of all places he decided to go, he went with his wife to a spa in Arizona.
"My wife kidnapped me," Phillips said. "I did get a man's pedicure, but I didn't let them mess with his hands."

As silly as it sounds, it turned out to be beneficial for the second-year head coach. In addition to reenergizing, it allowed Phillips to reflect on his first year and think about things to do differently.

"I did cut some of the things down that I was doing because I thought I needed to spend more time on football," Phillips said. "I needed to be fresh when I'm in front of our football team. I need to be fresh for spring football."

Phillips' tenure as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at UK overshadowed the fact that last spring was the first time he was making the crucial decisions from the big office. In hindsight, he said he's learned a few things.

"You've got to lean on your staff," Phillips said. "I've never been on a staff that the head coach didn't lean on his staff. I've got to do that even more this year. That is a lot of the experience. Rick's been a head coach before. You have to lean on him. You have to lean on all our guys because they do have experience."

 

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