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July 2, 2009
THE SCHEME: Kentucky operates a pro-style attack. The Wildcats alternate between sets that feature three or four wide receivers and lineups that include the use of a fullback.
STAR POWER: How much does sophomore WR Randall Cobb's versatility mean to this team? Consider that Cobb was the Wildcats' starting quarterback, starting wide receiver and top punt returner during portions of last season. He rushed for three touchdowns against Georgia, caught two touchdown passes in a come-from-behind victory over Arkansas and threw for 144 yards against Vanderbilt. After starting four games as a run-oriented quarterback last season, Cobb is moving back to wide receiver this year and should immediately establish himself as Mike Hartline's favorite target.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Kentucky's lack of proven receivers should create immediate opportunities for WR Chris Matthews, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College. Matthews, the No. 2 junior college wide receiver prospect, caught 80 passes for 1,235 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games last season.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: After working as a reserve running back and special teams standout for most of his career, RB Alfonso Smith should step into the spotlight as a senior. Smith made five starts last season and heads into the season as the Wildcats' No. 1 tailback. He will have to carry Kentucky's rushing attack in the early going as teammate Derrick Locke recovers from offseason knee surgery. Smith has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry, and his receiving ability makes him a threat in the passing game.
STRONGEST AREA: Kentucky's line doesn't have any obvious All-SEC candidates now that T Garry Williams has completed his career, but the Wildcats should be solid up front. Ts Zipp Duncan and Justin Jeffries and C Jorge Gonzalez give the Wildcats three returning starters, though Duncan is at a new position after playing guard last season. The Wildcats also should get a boost from the return of G Christian Johnson, who had 15 career starts before sitting out the '08 season with a back injury.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Kentucky won't make a fourth consecutive bowl without a more effective passing attack. The Wildcats ranked 96th in the nation in passing offense last season, and Hartline and Cobb combined to throw 13 interceptions with only 11 touchdown passes. The Wildcats lacked consistency at quarterback and potency in the receiving corps. Kentucky hopes it has solved both problems by naming Hartline the starting quarterback and making Cobb the go-to receiver. The Wildcats had better be right.
THE SCHEME: Kentucky operates a 4-3 defense.
STAR POWER: Trevard Lindley's decision to stay in school for his senior season gives Kentucky a legitimate All-America candidate in the secondary. Lindley enters his fourth year as a starter having already established himself as one of the top defensive players in school history. He has nine career interceptions and a school-record 34 pass breakups. LB Micah Johnson recorded 93 tackles and earned first-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches last season despite missing 2½ games with an injury.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: When E Jeremy Jarmon was declared ineligible for his senior season after inadvertently using a banned supplement, Kentucky suddenly found itself searching for pass rushers. Jarmon's absence could result in a starting job for redshirt freshman E Collins Ukwu. DeQuin Evans is another end who could capitalize on the situation; the transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College likely won't open the season in the starting lineup, but it wouldn't be a surprise if he's earning ample playing time by the end of the season.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: FS Winston Guy arguably performed as well as anyone on Kentucky's roster during spring practice. Guy has the size and speed to play at the next level. After returning kickoffs and backing up Lindley at cornerback last season, Guy is moving to safety this year and could make the leap to stardom as a sophomore.
STRONGEST AREA: Kentucky has plenty of reasons to feel good about its secondary. Lindley gives UK a legitimate Thorpe Award candidate. CB Randall Burden is coming off a solid performance in the Liberty Bowl, while CB Paul Warford – a 2007 starter – is back after redshirting last season. The safeties look good, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Who's going to rush the passer? Jarmon's unexpected departure leaves Kentucky without anyone who recorded more than four sacks last season. Corey Peters and Ricky Lumpkin are solid at tackle, but the Wildcats don't have any proven pass-rushing ends. They desperately need someone to fill the pass-rushing void from the edge.
Lones Seiber returns for a fourth season as Kentucky's main kicker, but he must try to bounce back from a disappointing season. Seiber was 11-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season and was just 4-for-11 from at least 30 yards. Ryan Tydlacka averaged 37.1 yards per attempt as a pooch punter last season and now has the full-time job. Tydlacka also has the ability to kick field goals if Seiber continues to struggle. Locke and Guy helped Kentucky rank third in the nation in kickoff-return average last season.
Don't be fooled by Rich Brooks' mediocre won-loss record. He helped build Oregon into a winner earlier in his career, and now he's doing the same thing at Kentucky. Brooks is the only coach in school history to lead Kentucky to three consecutive bowl victories; the only other Kentucky coach to make so much as three straight bowl appearances was Bear Bryant. While we aren't about to compare Brooks to the Bear, there's no doubt he has come a long way since going 9-25 in his first three seasons at UK. The Wildcats also have a fine collection of assistants, led by offensive coordinator Joker Phillips – Brooks' eventual successor – and defensive coordinator Steve Brown. Kentucky's defense ranked among the worst in the nation in the season before Brown's arrival. In two seasons, he has moved the Wildcats up to the middle of the pack in most defensive categories.
Kentucky's weak non-conference schedule in '08 allowed the Wildcats to reach a bowl without posting one regular-season victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision team with a winning record. The non-conference schedule doesn't look any tougher this season. The Wildcats have benefited from Louisville's recent descent into mediocrity because their other non-conference games are against lightweights Miami University, Louisiana-Monroe and Eastern Kentucky, and only the Miami game is away from home. Kentucky doesn't have an ideal conference schedule. The Wildcats' first two SEC games are at home against Florida and Alabama – the participants in last season's conference championship game. The good news is that Kentucky avoids LSU and Ole Miss out of the West.
The Wildcats have the talent and the schedule to continue their string of bowl bids, but a postseason invitation is no sure thing. The offense that struggled for much of the '08 season must perform better because the defense might not be quite as good. Johnson and Lindley are defensive stalwarts, but Peters is Kentucky's only other returning starter on that side of the ball. Kentucky's chances of getting back to a bowl likely depend on whether Hartline settles the quarterback situation and Cobb emerges as a go-to receiver. Hartline-to-Cobb might not immediately bring back memories of Andre Woodson-to-Keenan Burton or Woodson-to-Steve Johnson, but their connection should be good enough to get Kentucky a return trip to Nashville or Memphis during the holidays.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.