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Balance the focus in improving receiving corps

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La'Rod King enters his senior season with 86 catches for 1,218 yards and 13 touchdowns. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) La'Rod King enters his senior season with 86 catches for 1,218 yards and 13 touchdowns. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
During his playing days, Joker Phillips was a wide receiver. He understands the mentality of players that line up at the position of wanting the ball all the time. He understands the confidence it demands.

What he doesn't get is the line of thinking that good offensive teams must have one predominant threat at receiver.

"I don't understand what a go-to receiver is," Phillips said. "I've been in this business for a long time. That's a cliche that you, as media, (use and) sometimes I hear coaches saying. There is no such thing as a go-to receiver. You better have three guys out there that can make plays for you."

Take a look back at Phillips' tenure as head coach and offensive coordinator at UK, and you begin to see what he means. Dating to 2006, the 2011 season is the closest the Wildcats have come to having a so-called go-to guy. That year also happens to be the one that ended Kentucky's record streak of five straight bowl games.

La'Rod King led the way with 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns, accounting for 50.3 percent of the yards gained by UK wide receivers in the passing game. Before 2011, the highest such percentage came from Steve Johnson in 2007, when his 1,041 yards made up 41.5 percent of yards gained by UK receivers.

When UK needed a big passing play, King was more than likely going to be the target.

"On third down if you've got a go to receiver, I'm going to roll coverage to him," Phillips said. "I'm going to put somebody underneath him.  I'm going to put somebody over top. Now somebody else has to make a play for you, and your quarterback's over there patting the ball, waiting for him to get open.  He's not going to get open."

More often than not, that was exactly the scenario faced by UK in 2011, whether it was Morgan Newton or Max Smith under center. The Cats converted just 29 percent on third downs a year ago and scored touchdowns on just 50 percent of red-zone trips.

At least on the face of things, it was a dream scenario for King. He had the ball thrown his way more than he could reasonably hope and ample opportunities to make plays. Unfortunately, he learned quickly the chances he was getting were not of the highest quality.

"At the end of the day, it takes other receivers to step up as well," King said. "If you know you only have one receiver to guard to shut down the offense, you can double team him and see what the other guys can do. If they don't produce, you have an issue. Our biggest issue is to create multiple threats across the board so the playing field's even."

In 2010, King was the third option alongside Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. Those two got the lion's share of the targets, while King benefited from single coverage to catch 36 passes for 478 yards and five touchdowns, statistics that don't look all that different from 2011.

Taking over as wide receivers coach for Tee Martin, Pat Washington's task this offseason and now in fall camp is to put together a unit much more similar to the ones that kept Southeastern Conference defenses off guard in 2006-10. One of the two newest members of the staff, Washington is not one to sugarcoat things and his primary objective proves it.

"Making them understand that we're not considered a good group at this point," Washington said. "That no one is giving us credit for anything because we haven't earned any credit. Therefore if we want credit, if we want people to recognize us, we got to do it on the field."

That process has made for some, at times, unpleasant conversations.

"There's always things to critique," King said. "Every receiver has their bad habits and that's his job to point that out. He's not trying to bash anything, but (he is saying), 'This is what you need to work on. This is your strength and this is your weakness.' He's trying to balance you out and he's really good at that."

Washington's sometimes blunt messages might fall on deaf ears if not for Washington's sense of humor and approachability, traits both King and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins likened to the coach he replaced.

"It's not something you can take as personal because it's just criticism, but it's positive criticism," King said. "When you mature, you get that. When you're immature, you might get mad and that's when your issues come up. At the end of the day, he knows what he's talking about. His thing is he knows how to relate to you, so he's going to come at you to make you mad."

"He's a character," Collins said. "He's pretty much like Coach Tee. We joke around, but when it comes business time, he's all about it."

Granted, it was just a scrimmage, but the Cats appeared to show progress during the spring game. With a now-healthy King recuperating from injury, Collins, E.J. Fields and especially Demarco Robinson (nine catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns) showed flashes.

"From the beginning of the spring to the end, they began to have a confidence in themselves, not necessarily because of me," Washington said. "I think it's because of what they were doing on the field. They were making some plays in some situations we didn't make plays last year. Coaches were encouraged by what they did and they kind of let them know."

With King, the 6-foot-4 leader of the group, back on the field for fall camp, UK looks to have a deep, versatile corps of wide receivers. Sophomore Collins and Robinson have speed to burn, while seniors Fields and Aaron Boyd have experience. Redshirt freshman Bookie Cobbins has dedicated himself fully to the position after moving from quarterback, while true freshmen A.J. Legree and DeMarcus Sweat have the combination of size and speed that makes them look like SEC players. The issue now becomes taking that depth from theory to practice to actual in-game situations.

"On paper," Washington said. "Hopefully they can do it on the field, but on paper you think you have a chance to have guys that can do some different things for you. You got guys with good quickness, some guys with size."

An early obstacle facing the group in that task is uncertainty at the quarterback position. Washington and Phillips both say making a decision as quickly as possible is important to developing chemistry between thrower and catcher. King agrees, but he has no preference between Smith, Newton or freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.

"My opinion is I don't care who's back there as long as they get the job done," King said. "Whoever controls the offense and can be a leader in that position is a guy I would like to be there."

Once a starter is named, UK will focus on developing that chemistry. In the mean time, the wide receivers have plenty they can work on.

Among those tasks will most certainly not be identifying a No. 1 receiver, but that does not mean Washington doesn't want all his guys thinking like one.

"From my experience, the best receivers I ever coached were the ones that want the football," Washington said. "When (the defense) brings a blitz, they want to score a touchdown. They want the football. They want to make plays. I'm OK with that as long it's not overboard."

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