Breaking Bad: UK looks forward

Kentucky Wildcats guard Zach West (75) celebrates with Kentucky Wildcats running back Raymond Sanders (4) after a touchdown during the first half of the UK Football game v. Samford at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, November 17, 2012. Photo by Genevieve Adams | Staff

By Cody Porter | @KernelPorter
cporter@kykernel.com

A loss to Tennessee Saturday transitions the UK football program into a new phase.

On the heels of the loss, exiting head coach Joker Phillips leaves the new leader of the Cats, Mark Stoops, with emerging talent that they haven’t had around these parts except on varying circumstances.

Names like Towles, Whitlow, Quinn, Collins, Robinson, Dupree and Williamson can now take the opportunity to hone their skills and improve a foundering program.

Phillips had a path — albeit a diverging one — that has talent in place to have the Cats returning to a bowl game next season. What wasn’t on his side was injuries and experience.

As the mediocre program’s hopeful turnaround begins, the Cats have a few areas heading into next season that, above all others, need to see the transition of talent to SEC speed made, or they’ll continue to be left behind.

1. Secondary

The bulk of the Cats’ nagging injuries came in its secondary. With the coming and going of seniors Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton and Cartier Rice, along with early season losses of sophomore safety Glenn Faulkner and freshman cornerback Marcus Caffey, freshmen and previously unused talent had to fill the void.

Such a task in the Southeastern Conference isn’t so easily done.

However, with the experience they received in 2012, freshmen Cody Quinn, Daron and Zack Blaylock, Fred Tiller and J.D. Harmon can accompany returning talent to provide depth that always negates the Cats’ efforts season after season.

2. Offensive Line

As unexpected as it was, the UK offense shot out of the gate at the beginning of the season, despite the defense heading the opposite direction.

But, when sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith took his lumps, the offense took a downward spiral.

Consistency since that time came via the running game, with help from junior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Jonathan George.

Unfortunately for the Cats, and whoever inherits the program, three veterans of the trenches leave during the off-season. Seniors Larry Warford and Matt Smith, along with Trevino Woods, who provided some depth.

In recent off-seasons, UK has had vast success in recruiting lineman, but they must turn the corner before the Cats’ offense makes the transition of its own.

Sophomore Darrian Miller, freshman Zach West and junior Kevin Mitchell have got plenty of experience behind their superiors, but they now assume the role of those three.

The bigger question, though, is who will snap the ball to the quarterback to be named? When Smith missed practice prior to the season, it was Warford who slid over.

Now that both are gone, the Cats must find the right snapper and have plenty of time to make a connection with whoever is under center for UK in 2013.

3. Defensive Line

Entering the 2012 season, the UK defensive line was said to be the team’s strength. Week after week, the opposition’s offensive line and running game proved that to be myth.

By the season’s mid point rolled around, the defensive line had become stellar, but still not what head coach Joker Phillips portrayed them as.

As of Saturday’s loss to Tennessee, the Cats’ rush defense ranked No. 63 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing an average of 61.25 yard per game.

Come 2013, the Cats line will no longer have the beard, Taylor Wyndham, or Collins Ukwu, which combined for 68 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and six sacks.

Unless the new head coach brings in a new scheme, UK will pack a punch in the middle and plenty of inexperience on its ends. This scenario would make the defensive line reminiscent of the situation the secondary was in this season.

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