Breaking bad: Prelude to the Blue/White game



Football has finally returned to the Bluegrass after months of lying dormant.

Since its monumental win over Tennessee in November, UK head coach Joker Phillips has lost many key components to the program — lead recruiter and wide receivers coach Tee Martin, and linebackers Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy, Ridge Wilson and Tim Patterson.

Their departures came from a variety of manners, from making the move to higher society in the University of Southern California and NFL, to off the field issues that led to a dismissal.

One common factor in those losses is that it paves the way for new talent to emerge.

With the Blue/White spring football game just days away, Phillips should have reason for concern at some key positions, but the talent is there to provide a glimmer of hope when the lights at Commonwealth Stadium are shut off Saturday night.

Based on the attrition within the program and the play so far in the spring, here are the positions to keep an eye on moving forward:

1. Wide Receivers

The most problematic position for UK last season was wide receiver. The Cats’ biggest contributor to the passing game was junior La’Rod King.

King struggled early in spring drills, but has progressed into what coaches remembered from last season.

“We’re starting to find out who our playmakers are,” Phillips said. “(Wide receiver) Demarco Robinson is becoming one of our playmakers. La’Rod (King) is starting to pick it up and make plays we expect him to make.”

King, the soon-to-be senior wide receiver was UK’s leading receiver during this past Saturday’s scrimmage. He finished the morning session with seven catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns.

More experience comes in the form of juniors E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill, but expect the newcomers of Robinson and Daryl Collins to make their way to the top of the depth chart to assist King and freshman quarterback Max Smith.

Robinson reps at No. 1 aren’t being limited to just wideout, the freshman is also using his speed to escalate up the ranks on special teams as a punt and kick returner, a position that hurt the Cats last season.

Collins was one of UK’s steals on signing day by Martin. Collins, much like Robinson has speed, but the freshman has great hands and has drawn comparisons from coaches to Randall Cobb. Fans will get their first view of him in action this coming Saturday.

2. Offensive Line

Probably the biggest change at any one position for the Cats comes in the trenches.

The Cats lost Billy Joe Murphy, Stuart Hines and Chandler Burden to graduation.

Maybe more so than last season, the offensive line will play a critical role in blocking for a seasoned Smith and one of the Cats’ better group of running backs in a few seasons with the trio of junior CoShik Williams, sophomore Raymond Sanders and freshman Josh Clemons.

New to the first string is freshmen Darrian Miller and Zach West, along with sophomore Kevin Mitchell who quietly made an impact during the 2011 season.

In having so much youth, Phillips said junior Larry Warford is a nice player to have around to help with West and Miller.

“Larry Warford is a guy that is doing a really good job of leading for us,” Phillips said.

The other offensive lineman, junior Matt Smith, has been in and out of spring practices due to scheduling conflicts with his class work.

Due to that conflict, Warford has got the opportunity to slide into the center position and gain valuable experience if the problem arises in the fall that UK needs a replacement center.

Warford is expected to be UK’s top prospect for the 2013 NFL Draft as he is thought to be one of the top guards in the nation.

3. Defensive Backs

Although the offensive line could emerge as a strength this upcoming season, expect quarterback Max Smith to overachieve in Saturday’s Blue/White game against a mostly inexperienced group of defensive backs.

Junior Martavius Neloms returns to lead the group, but the Cats also feature junior Cartier Rice who has seen limited action in his career at UK, and freshmen Marcus Caffey and Miles Simpson.

Caffey is the newest player to the group. The redshirt freshman moved from running back to corner at the beginning of spring practice.

The biggest reason for the move is that the Cats lacked size at the position. All other cornerbacks are listed under 190 pounds. Caffey comes in at 5-foot-11, 201 pounds with many seasons ahead of him in a UK uniform.

“You look out there last year, we were hurting 70 pounds on both corners,” Phillips said at his spring practice press conference. “Hard to hold up against the guys we have to play. This guy is 200 pounds right now, about six foot and a half, moves really well.”

UK’s other major move in the secondary is the transition of  Simpson into the hybrid safety/linebacker position.

He backed up Guy last season, but with his youth, coaches are hopeful his newly added size helps him adjust and flourish in his full-time role.