When the Detroit Lions lost on Wild Card Weekend, and the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos followed suit the week after, the playoff dreams of former Kentucky players Larry Warford and Jacob Tamme (as well as injured standouts Garry Williams and Danny Trevathan) were vanquished. Though UK alumnus Chris Matthews signed with the Seattle Seahawks late in the regular season, Randall Cobb and Tim Masthay of the Green Bay Packers are the only starting former Wildcats with Super Bowl XLIX hopes still alive. The Packers will travel to Seattle to face the defending champions in Sunday's NFC Championship at 3:05 p.m. ET on Fox.
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4) Cobb caught a game-high eight passes in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys. The former second round pick finished with 116 yards, including a 31-yard haul late in the first half and a heroic reception off a deflected pass to seal the victory.
Vince Marrow signed a contract extension through 2018 to stay at UK. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The offer was tough to pass up.
Jim Harbaugh, one of the most respected coaches in the game, was returning to his alma mater, Michigan, to resurrect the winningest program in college football history. So when Harbaugh called Vince Marrow to offer him a job, Marrow had to listen.
Marrow, however, just couldn't leave what he was helping to build at Kentucky. More importantly, he just couldn't leave the people he was building with.
"Michigan, being a Midwest guy and being from Ohio, it was very tempting," Marrow said on Wednesday, "but it was just my relationship here with the administration and our staff and even the kids that I have coming in this year and the kids that I have recruited the last two years played a big part of that."
On Monday, Marrow signed a contract extension that will keep him at UK through the end of the 2018 season as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. The news ended a week of speculation about whether Marrow would stay or leave.
"The last three days I couldn't really go anywhere without people saying things to me," Marrow said. "We were in church and the guy doing the offering said something, that is how deep it got. Relationships played a big part to just be honest with you guys."
Building relationships is the biggest reason why Marrow has developed a reputation as an ace recruiter, establishing a pipeline to Ohio and reeling in 14 prospects in UK's 2013 and 2014 signing classes. As for the 2015 recruits who have already pledged to come to Kentucky, even they were a little surprised he told Michigan thanks but no thanks after sleepless nights last weekend.
"I know that a lot of our recruits were very fired up because for some reason they just assumed I was gone," Marrow said. "I told people that it wasn't a slam dunk and a lot of people were saying that it was a slam dunk I was going."
Marrow, at the end of the day, had invested too much in Mark Stoops' vision for the future of UK football to leave even for an opportunity like the one he passed up. And with an athletics department so willing to invest in Marrow, as well as in more than $150 million in ongoing facility upgrades, he sees that vision become reality.
"It shows that our athletics director, Mitch (Barnhart), the route he is going, our administration and it shows were the program is going and I believe in that wholeheartedly," Marrow said. "You look at the stadium renovations and just at the type of support that we have been getting over the last two years here. That always plays a big part in it."
His decision made, Marrow's attention goes back to recruiting. He played a crucial role in securing classes ranked 17th and 29th by Rivals.com in the past two seasons, the two best classes in the history of the recruiting service. Marrow expects similar success come signing day in February.
"We are going to finish strong just like we did the last two years," Marrow said. "We have a couple more slots that we have to fill and it is just a situation where I know with me staying here a lot of those guys were very fired up to see that. We will see where we are going to finish, but I feel pretty good about it though. It is going to be pretty good."
Vince Marrow has signed a contract extension that will keep him at UK through 2018. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After a week of speculation about whether he might take another job, Kentucky tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow agreed to a contract extension that will keep him in Lexington through June of 2018. The news was first announced on UK's official football Twitter account.
.@UKCoachStoops has announced that TE coach and recruiting coordinator @vincemarrow has agreed to a contract extension through June of 2018.
Marrow has earned a reputation as an ace recruiter in his two years at UK, playing an instrumental role in the two highest-rated classes in school history according to Rivals.com over the last two seasons. Marrow, a teammate of Mark Stoops at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, has been especially active in establishing a pipeline to his home state.
"I'm thankful for the support of Dr. (Eli) Capilouto, Mitch Barnhart and Coach Stoops with this contract extension," Marrow said. "Our program is headed in the right direction on and off the field with the new facilities and overwhelming support of the Big Blue Nation. I'm excited to be part of it as we continue moving forward."
Stoops, as you might expect, was excited about the news as well.
Vince has been an important part of the growth of our program and I'm excited about his contract extension.
As the 2014 calendar year comes to a close, the 2014 NFL regular season ended on a high note for former Kentucky football players now making a living at the professional level. Several NFL Cats concluded Week 17 with outstanding personal performances, while others prepare for their teams' postseason runs on the road to Super Bowl XLIX.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4) After being shut out of the end zone since Week 11, Cobb exploded for two touchdowns in Green Bay's division-clinching 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions. Cobb caught four passes for 80 yards, and rushed for six more on the ground.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14) With four tackles (two solo, two assisted) on the day, Williamson broke former Titan Alterraun Verner's four-year record for most tackles by a rookie in franchise history. Williamson recorded 105 tackles on the season, but the Titans dropped their 10th straight with a 27-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14) In Woodyard's final game of his seventh NFL season, the former Walter Payton Man of the Year recorded four solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' loss to Indy.
Cats in the Playoffs
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Carolina Panthers -- Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Though the Panthers finished the regular season with a losing record, 7-8-1 was good enough to clinch the NFC South and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Former Wildcat Garry Williams is still part of the Panthers' roster, though the offensive tackle has seen only limited playing time thanks to serious injury.
(6) Detroit Lions at (3) Dallas Cowboys -- Sunday, 4:40 p.m. After recovering from a left knee injury that caused him to sit out from football for the first time in his playing career, Lions right guard Larry Warford was carted off the field with a right knee injury in Detroit's Week 17 loss to the Packers. Warford is listed as day-to-day and hopes to contribute at some point to the Lions' postseason run.
(1) Seattle Seahawks -- January 10, 8:15 p.m. The defending Super Bowl champions will face the remaining team with the lowest seed after receiving a bye in the first round. Former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews was signed from the Seahawks practice squad earlier this month, but has not seen the field with Seattle since. (2) Green Bay Packers -- January 11, 1:05 p.m. Like Seattle, Green Bay received a bye in the playoffs' opening round. The Packers, however, feature two former UK standouts as prominent members of the NFC North champions. Punter Tim Masthay and Cobb--who does a little bit of everything for head coach Mike McCarthy--look to be major factors in the Packers' sixth straight postseason appearance. Green Bay will face the highest seeded NFC team (save for the Seahawks) on January 11.
AFC (2) Denver Broncos -- January 11, 4:40 p.m. After losing a shootout to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 16, last year's AFC champions bounced back with a 47-14 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders last Sunday. The Broncos feature tight end Jacob Tamme and injured defensive standout Danny Trevathan. Like the Packers, Denver will face the higher seeded winner of this weekend's opening slate of games.
Like most of the league, the majority of Kentucky's NFL Cats' postseason fates had already been decided before the NFL's penultimate slate of 2014 regular season games. However, several UK alumni and their teams are still fighting for playoff berths, while others are using the season's final two weeks to cap off successful individual season-long performances. Here are the former Wildcats who shined in Week 16: Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (11-4) Cobb led all receivers with 11 catches and 131 yards in Green Bay's 20-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers have already clinched a postseason berth, but will face the Detroit Lions in Week 17 for the NFC North crown.
Corey Peters | #91 DT | Atlanta Falcons (6-9) Despite a guaranteed losing record, the Falcons still control their own playoff destiny. Week 17 will pit the Dirty Birds against Garry Williams' Carolina Panthers (who will also finish with a losing record) for the NFC South title. In Week 16's 30-14 defeat of the New Orleans Saints, Peters recorded his first quarterback sack since Week 3. The former third-round pick finished with two solo tackles on the day. Alfonso Smith | #38 RB | San Francisco 49ers (7-8) Though the 49ers will not make the playoffs for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, late-season injuries have opened the door for playing time for Smith. In San Fran's 38-35 (OT) loss to the San Diego Chargers, Smith attempted two rushes for 14 yards and caught two passes for nine yards. Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-13) For the 13th time in 15 tries this season, the Titans came up short of victory. From an individual standpoint, however, Woodyard has continued to shine his entire first season with the franchise. In Week 16's 21-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Woodyard tallied two solo tackles, three assists, and one sack on the day.
It should come as no surprise that Mark Stoops had a plan when he learned he would have to replace Neal Brown.
The interest in Kentucky's open offensive coordinator job came from far and wide and speculation about when Brown's successor would be named swirled immediately. Stoops, meanwhile, kept a narrow focus, unaffected by everything going on outside his own head.
"I really took my time, evaluated to find what I wanted, and set out to find that person rather than just get all kinds of great people with great credentials and then try to change what we're doing and so on and so forth, and what direction I wanted to go," Stoops said.
Once Stoops had an idea on direction, he set about finding the best fit. Ultimately, current West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson was the pick.
"With that, that led me to Shannon, and could not be more happy with that hire," Stoops said. "I think the more and more research I did, the more and more I talked to him, it was evident that he was exactly what we're looking for here at Kentucky to lead our offense. Very, very proud to have him."
First, Dawson's hire ensures continuity from the system Brown ran the last two seasons, though Stoops shied away from calling it the "Air Raid."
"It's the same system, however you want to define it," Stoops said. "It's very similar."
Dawson got his coaching start at Southeastern Louisiana under Hal Mumme, a fact that Stoops didn't come across until late in the game.
"I also think it's kind of unique that some of his roots go back to Coach Mumme in the days of--it all goes back, right?" Stoops said. "I didn't even really realize that until we were far into the process, but I think it is kind of unique that what I'm looking for and what we're trying to be here offensively, a lot of it does tie into the culture and to the history of this program."
The history of the program may have a lot to do with the pass-happy system Mumme pioneered, but Stoops is quick to point out that its future will be defined in large part by running the ball. Playing in the Southeastern Conference, he doesn't see any other option.
"You've heard me talk about it all the time, and people may wonder where I'm going all the time with balance and things like that, but the bottom line is I believe to compete in this conference you have to be physical," Stoops said. "You have to have some balance."
Once again, Dawson fits the bill on that count.
Though West Virginia is ninth nationally in passing and 11th in total offense, the Mountaineers actually attempted more runs (531) than passes (489) this regular season.
"They're very effective at running the ball, even out of the spread, and that's what I want to look like," Stoops said. "I want to threaten people and make them accountable to stopping the run game. If you don't, really you're not going to win a lot of games."
Getting past system and run-pass balance, Stoops sees in Dawson the kind of coach who will fit into a blue-collar staff that, by and large, has been together for two years now. He sees a coach who will capitalize on the opportunity in front of him.
"The most important thing was leadership, but other things I really liked about him was I felt like he's always done more with less," Stoops said. "I like the way he's worked his way up the profession. I like the way he grinded from a young coach and really made a name for himself, working with Hal Mumme, the roots of his system."
Stoops also mentioned Dawson's evolution as a coach. The 37-year-old has come a long way since those days with Mumme and even in his three seasons working under Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, going from relying almost exclusively on the pass to displaying the balance so important to Stoops.
That's now positioned him for this chance to run his own offensive show.
"I think if you ask him when he gets here, I'm sure one of the things that appealed to him about coming here was working for a defensive coach because, you know, sink or swim, here's the keys, you do it," Stoops said. "Sink or swim. That's what it was like when I went to Florida State (as defensive coordinator), and I wanted it that way." Stoops in no rush to find Naivar's replacement
Stoops confirmed on Monday that special teams coordinator and safeties coach Craig Naivar has accepted a position at the University of Houston. With the decision to hire Dawson now made, Stoops is turning his attention to filling the vacancy left by Naivar.
Just as he did in searching for an offensive coordinator, Stoops won't hurry.
"I want the best football coach I can get," Stoops said.
He also wants a coach who will be a major asset on the defensive side of the ball.
"I would really like to bring in as much defensive experience as we can get," Stoops said. "I think if you just look around this league, and some things that are going on now and guys that I'm talking to and different things, different hires, it's serious business. There's guys hiring an awful lot of good football coaches. You look at certain staffs, and there's two or three coordinator types on each side of the ball, and really that's what you have to get to."