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June 30, 2011
Cats have defensive hope
2010 Record: 6-7, 2-6
Q&A with Steve Jones of CatsIllustrated.com
Q - What impact do you foresee new defensive coordinator Rick Minter making with a defense that ranked 10th in scoring defense last fall?
A - "Minter installed a new defense in the spring that will use multiple formations and seems certain to bring pressure from different players and from different angles. Kentucky played a standard 4-3 alignment on nearly every down under Steve Brown, who still remains on staff as a co-defensive coordinator, but Minter is now calling the plays. Head coach Joker Phillips has said repeatedly that the top goals of the defense are to create turnovers and negative-yards plays. Obviously every team wants to do that, but it certainly seems like a bigger priority now. I got the feeling that UK's top priority in recent years has been to prevent the offense from getting 10 yards and a first down. So I expect a more aggressive defense that will try to force the action and get in the backfield with blitzing or just by having faster, albeit somewhat smaller, players closer to the line of scrimmage. Senior Winston Guy, who has been a traditional safety, is now a safety/outside linebacker hybrid who starts in the box - an effort to get more speed closer to the line. UK will still have two other safeties on the field, so depending on what position you want to label Guy, the Wildcats will line up in a 4-3 or a 4-2-5. UK will also show some 3-4 looks, depending on whether outside linebacker/defensive end Ridge Wilson stands up or puts his hand on the ground."
Q - Is Morgan Newton ready to be the starting quarterback?
A - "I tend to think so, although Newton definitely has his skeptics and those who feel UK never gave Ryan Mossakowski, the Cats' other highly regarded 2009 QB signee, a fair shot to play. (Mossakowski announced he'd transfer before 2011 spring practice began.) Newton started part-time for UK as a true freshman in 2009 because of injuries and helped the Cats to historic roads wins at Georgia and Auburn. But the playbook was simplified for him, and UK pretty much let Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke do all the work on the ground. He sat all of last year behind Mike Hartline before starting against Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. UK lost 27-10, and the offense looked pretty weak. But Newton looked sharp during several of UK's practices this spring that were open to the media, and he showed a really strong arm and some nice accuracy in the Cats' Blue/White game. Phillips has said he noticed improved confidence and leadership in Newton this spring and has favorably compared him at this point in his career to former UK star QB Andre' Woodson. Woodson, who is now a UK student assistant who works primarily with Newton, never really shined until his junior year, but after that was a top QB in the Southeastern Conference. What's clear is that the starting job is Newton's almost no matter what. UK's only other scholarship quarterbacks this season will be two true freshmen. It's a bit of a scary proposition should Newton get injured."
Q - Where will the big plays come from now that Randall Cobb has moved on to the NFL?
A - "A huge question. It's easy to get excited about a new defense, a strong offensive line, the team's improved overall talent from recruiting, but the fact of the matter is UK no longer has its four best offensive skill players - Cobb, arguably the best player ever at UK; Locke; Hartline and Chris Matthews - and has no clear-cut emerging star to replace them. Junior La'Rod King and sophomore Brian Adams have the size, athletic ability and playmaking potential of No. 1 wide receivers, and sophomore Raymond Sanders, a Stephenson High School product, is the likely starter at running back. Good players all of them, but they have huge shoes to fill and big steps to take. Georgia high school football fans are also probably familiar with incoming UK freshman running back Marcus Caffey of Grady High and Josh Clemons of Whitewater. They'll be given a chance to compete for early playing time."
Q - How deep will Kentucky's wide receiving corps be this year?
A - "Not very deep with proven commodities, that's for sure. But King (6-4, 204) has experience and caught 36 passes for 478 yards and five touchdowns last year as UK's No. 3 receiver. Adams (6-4, 223) is an athletic freak - also a good UK baseball player - who was praised almost daily by Phillips in the spring as a potential playmaker. Another Georgian, North Cobb product Matt Roark, had a good spring before dropping several passes in the spring game. He'll play a lot, and junior Gene McCaskill is a former part-time starter who is back after missing all of last year with a knee injury. Kentucky signed six wide receivers, including recording-breaking Martin Luther King High product DeMarco Robinson, and Phillips said he won't shy from using some of them this year if the veterans don't produce."
Q - Danny Trevathan is a proven star on defense, but who else on D will need to step up this fall?
A - "Winston Guy (6-1, 210), who considered a jump to the NFL and says he was projected as a possible mid-round pick, seems poised for an All-SEC senior season from his new safety/linebacker hybrid spot. Wilson (6-3, 238) is a strong, athletic player who could have a breakout year as a pass-rusher. Junior Martavius Neloms has moved from cornerback to safety and should be a fast weapon in pass coverage. Junior defensive end Collins Ukwu (6-5, 255) drew spring praise for his improved aggressiveness, and he's a sleeper pick for a breakout year."
Q - Prediction time. Where will the Wildcats find themselves in the SEC East at the end of the year?
A - "I think the defense will be improved and exciting to watch. I think Newton will do well, and the offensive line should be among the best in the SEC. Still it's really hard to predict huge success when the Cats have to replace Cobb, so a 7-5 season, 3-5 in the SEC, seems like a logical prediction. If UK can end its 26-year losing streak to Tennessee in a winnable home finale, 8-4 and 4-4 should help the Cats climb the SEC bowl ladder, maybe to a warm-weather game."