At the beginning of spring practice, my intent was to put together a list of storylines to keep an eye on over Kentucky's 15 sessions in March and April. There are only two scrimmages and two practices left before the end of spring football, so instead of a preview, this is a sort of progress report based on what we have heard about the happenings at the Nutter Training Facility.
1. Identifying playmakers - This is first on the list for a reason. It's impossible to pin the end of UK's bowl streak a season ago on a single factor, but it's hard to argue any facet had more to do with it than the Wildcats' inability to make game-breaking plays on the offensive side of the football. UK managed just 4.8 yards per pass and 3.5 yards per rush in 2011 with the departure of stars like Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Chris Matthews.
In the backfield, Raymond Sanders came in as the Cats' top option, but he was slowed all season by a knee injury. Josh Clemons stepped up in his place, looking the part of a dynamic running back, but his freshman season was cut short by a knee injury. Finally, CoShik Williams became the workhorse UK needed toward the end of the season. At wide receiver, La'Rod King was UK's best option, reeling in 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns. However, he and his fellow pass-catchers were plagued by drops from start to finish.
This spring, Williams has only strengthened his grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. Joker Phillips has called him one of the toughest players on the team, and the senior, a former walk-on, has looked the part, fighting through injuries. Sanders and Clemons, for their part, have worked to round into form, and there figure to be ample opportunities for them to make plays. If last year proved anything, it's that you need multiple backs to get the job done in the rugged SEC. A steady Williams backed up by home run threats in Sanders and Clemons could make for some significant improvement.
King, also now a senior, has been asked to step up as a leader among the wide outs in his final season. Seniors E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill provide experience, but a youngster has caught some eyes in the passing game this spring. Sophomore Demarco Robinson made a 60-yard and a 30-yard catch in the last scrimmage out of the slot receiver position and could strike fear into the hearts of opponents with his speed and quickness as he develops his strength. Redshirt freshman Daryl Collins is still working back from reconstructive knee surgery and has also impressed.
2. Emergence of the defensive line - With inexperience at so many positions, the defensive line is being called upon to be the strength of the defensive unit in Rick Minter's second season. SEC teams year in and year out have relied on the big guys up front to set the tone, and UK has a chance to do that with a pair of junior defensive tackles in Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph.
Both had long journeys to get on the field as Wildcats and had work to do in terms of conditioning, but they showed they are capable of wrecking havoc in opposing backfields in 2011. This spring, they have been asked to evolve into cornerstones of the defense. Phillips said both were in the best shape they had ever been in coming into the spring, which bodes well. Just as importantly, Cobble and Rumph have stayed healthy thus far.
UK also boasts a great deal of experience at defensive end with seniors Taylor Wyndham and Collins Ukwu at the top of the depth chart. Ukwu is UK's best returning pass rusher at the end spot, but has battled injury during the spring. Nonetheless, he has asserted himself in the leadership department.
3. Quarterback question still unanswered - With Morgan Newton recovering from shoulder surgery, sophomore Maxwell Smith has been UK's primary option under center. Smith, after a rough start, threw for 228 yards and a touchdown in the Cats' first major scrimmage with Jacob Russell serving as his backup. Smith would seem to be getting a head start on the quarterback battle that will begin in earnest in August, but it's hard to know the situation until Newton (and incoming freshman Patrick Towles) can compete.
4. Replacing Trevathan and Guy - One of the top stories of 2011 was replacing stars on the offense. In 2012, it's going to be doing the same on defense. Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy were the leading tacklers for not only UK, but the entire SEC, so filling the void left by them will be crucial. Malcolm McDuffen and Miles Simpson are expected to play the positions vacated by Trevathan and Guy and look the part, but replacing their production will be a team effort. Alvin Dupree and Avery Williamson impressed in reserve roles last season, and have not only made plays this spring, but also stepped up as leaders. Dupree, in particular, has looked good and Phillips has predicted he'll be a "big-time backer."
5. Locking down the corner spot - One of the biggest question marks coming into the spring was who would become UK's starting cornerbacks. Cartier Rice was listed as one top corner, as he is the only Wildcats with game experience at the position. The other listed starter was Marcus Caffey, who played running back during his freshman season.
Whether Rice, Eric Dixon or someone else gets the nod at the other spot is yet to be determined, but you can pretty much rest assured Caffey will start UK's opener vs. Louisville. Phillips has raved about how much of a natural Caffey is for the position and he loves the size he brings.
"We got a 205-pound, 6-foot-1 long-armed corner that everybody's playing with in this league," Phillips said. "We think he'll be a big-time player around here."
During Friday's scrimmage, Caffey made play on interception and return for touchdown that Phillips called "one of the biggest plays I've seen made here on defense."
6. Integrating a pair of new coaches - Even though new assistant coaches Mike Cassity and Pat Washington had ample ties to the UK staff coming in, getting adjusted to a new school and a new team would be an adjustment. So far, the pair seem to be doing just fine.
"The thing that we've done is we've hired good assistants," Phillips said. "I think the players understand that we've hired good guys that are great teachers."
Each has one of the most important jobs on the team, with Cassity coaching the secondary and Washington serving as the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.
7. Finding hidden yards on special teams - UK spent all of 2011 looking for a boost in the return game. Several different Wildcats tried their hands on kicks, while Randall Burden handled most punts. The team was generally good at taking care of the football, but UK didn't have a punt return longer than 11 yards or a kick return longer than 36 yards. During spring, Demarco Robinson has shown himself capable of being the go-to guy for both. He had two returns a year ago, but had trouble securing the football. This year, he's improved and appears poised to be the dangerous return man UK lacked a season ago.
Outside of Trevathan and Guy, punter Ryan Tydlacka may have been the most consistent performer on last year's team. He's gone now though, which means junior Joe Mansour and freshman Jay Wilmott are left to battle it out. Both have been solid in scrimmages, but it's too early to tell who has the edge in this battle. At kicker, UK will once again turn to the solid Craig McIntosh.