A fitting end

Senior Cats lead UK to second straight bowl victory

NASHVILLE — Fresh off the program’s first back-to-back bowl wins since the 1951-52 seasons, the hype and expectations surrounding the UK football team has never been higher.

After struggling under Rich Brooks in his first three seasons as head coach, UK has turned in a pair of 8-5 seasons that were both topped off with a bowl victory in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl in Nashville.

The UK players and coaches celebrated in similar fashion to last season’s bowl victory, drenching Brooks in a Gatorade bath and vowing to return to another bowl next season.

“Turning the program around means we need to be in postseason play next year,” Brooks said just minutes after this season’s bowl victory.

The Cats’ postseason trip this year was not always pretty. Facing a depleted Florida State team that was without 36 players — a large majority was suspended for cheating on a music test — the Cats looked sluggish at times.

UK committed four turnovers, seven penalties for 45 yards and continually let the Seminoles back into the game. But as they have done throughout their careers at UK, it was the Cats’ seniors who answered the call.

Andre Woodson led the way with his second consecutive Most Valuable Player Award. The senior quarterback was 32-of-50 for 358 passing yards and four touchdowns. Senior tailback Rafael Little added 204 all-purpose yards.

“I really am not eloquent enough to put it into words how much these guys mean to me,” Brooks said. “It’s as special a group as I’ve ever coached in my life.”

But with their final performance comes the reality that Brooks and Co. must replace those 16 seniors, the majority who played significant minutes during the last two years.

Besides losing Woodson and Little in the backfield on offense, the Cats will lose the majority of their top receivers. UK will face the tough task of replacing wide outs Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson along with tight end Jacob Tamme.

Junior wide receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. should cushion the blow, and freshman wide out Kyrus Lanxter figures to battle for a starting role.

Replacing a quarterback the caliber of Woodson, who finished as UK’s all-time career passing-touchdown record holder with 79 scores, will be no easy task either. Sophomore Mike Hartline and junior Curtis Pulley will battle for the quarterback spot.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cats lose linebacker Wesley Woodyard, strong safety Roger Williams and defensive end Dominic Lewis. Woodyard, the two-time season leader in tackles in the Southeastern Conference, believes the defense can be better next year despite losing its seniors.

“We believe and trust that we’re leaving the program in good hands,” he said.

The most notable returning player is sophomore defensive end Jeremy Jarmon, who recorded nine sacks during the 2007 campaign. Losing Woodyard at the linebacker position is a huge hit to the defense, but the return of junior linebackers Johnny Williams and Braxton Kelley and sophomore Micah Johnson should keep the Cats defense in stride.

“They’ve done such a great job getting our program on track,” Jarmon said of the seniors. “It’s up to some of us now to continue the tradition.”