With no one returning to return kicks for the Cats, competition is wide open


Despite only being a sophomore, UK running back Raymond Sanders, seen here carrying the ball against Akron last season, has taken on a leadership role at the position. Photo by Britney McIntosh

Last January, UK lost 98 career kickoff returns for 2,531 yards (an average of about 26 yards per return) and two touchdowns, along with 65 career punt returns for 627 yards (about 9.6 yards per return) and two more touchdowns, from just two players: Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke. With both the kickoff return and punt return positions now vacated, and with field position in the Southeastern Conference as pivotal as it is, competition in camp is wide open to fill Cobb’s and Locke’s very big shoes.

“We’ve talked about the production that we lost, a lot of that production came from two guys,” UK head football coach Joker Phillips said. “You say two guys at the wide receiver and running back position, and he also was our returner, so we’ve got to find out who our returners are.”

At the top of the list of candidates sits Raymond Sanders, UK’s active leader in carries with 68 and yards with 254, both accomplished last year as a freshman filling in for Locke while he was injured. Sanders entered camp slated to be the team’s starting running back week one against Western Kentucky, and he said he would like to return kicks while carrying the load of the Cats’ running game.

“I returned some last year so (the coaches) told me this year that if I want the job and I go out there and catch the balls, I still have to earn the job,” Sanders said, “but they are looking for me to be the guy for kick returns. We’ve got a lot of other great returners that can make plays, so I’d love to be the guy back there, that’s one of the attributes I was recruited for and that I think I’m pretty good at.”

Among the other great returners stands senior safety Winston Guy, who returned kicks as a freshman and is expected by many to join Sanders on kick return duty to start the season. Also in the mix are back-up running backs CoShik Williams, who is UK’s active leader in rushing touchdowns with four (all last year as a freshman) and Jonathan George, who carried the ball nine times a year ago for 25 yards as a redshirt freshman.

All throughout spring practice, Guy begged UK special teams coordinator Greg Nord for a chance to return kicks, but the competition is not closed yet and Guy will have to earn his spot over athletes like Williams and George.

“Right now I’m on the pre-camp roster to catch kicks, so we’ll see how it goes,” George said. “I did it in high school so I am a little familiar with it. … I feel like it’s something I can do.”

“I was back there at kick returner a little bit last year, back there against Tennessee and Vanderbilt,” Williams added. “I’m back there me and Raymond and Winston (Guy) so right now we are just finding out who is going to return. It’s something I’m interested in though.”

Early in camp, it looks as though Guy has remained “the guy” (no pun intended) to join Sanders on kickoff returns, despite his position change to a safety/linebacker hybrid.

On punt returns, its likely Nord and the rest of the coaching staff go with a different Randall this season. Senior cornerback Randall Burden will be the guy to return punts to start the 2011 season, after backing up Randall Cobb at the position in 2010. Burden also returned punts in high school before arriving in Lexington, providing him with some experience for the job. Junior safety Martavius Neloms, who converted from cornerback to safety this offseason, will also return punts with Burden in 2011.