Cats nearing full strength after bye week

UK football head coach Rich Brooks called his team’s loss to Mississippi State “a total systems failure.”

Part of the system failure fell on a maligned lineup that had been thinned out by injuries.

But after a full week to recover thanks to the bye week, it appears as if all systems are ready to go when the Cats head down to Nashville, Tenn., to battle Vanderbilt.

With the exceptions of junior free safety Marcus McClinton (cracked shoulder blade), sophomore cornerback Paul Warford (ankle), junior tailback Tony Dixon (ankle) and sophomore defensive tackle Corey Peters (strained knee), everybody  is expected to play Saturday, Brooks said.

Brooks added that Warford, Dixon and Peters are all questionable for the critical Southeastern Conference Eastern Division showdown.

“Just like it has been most of this year, this is a huge game for us, and it’s a huge game for them,” Brooks said yesterday at his weekly news conference.

Despite sitting at just 2-3 in the conference, the Cats are still mathematically in the race for first place in the SEC East. While the UK players sat at home during the off week, the ever-changing division continued to shift with South Carolina and Vanderbilt each suffering conference losses.

The Cats will have to hope several things fall their way to remain in the division hunt, but the return of several key playmakers, most notably senior wide receiver Keenan Burton and senior running back Rafael Little, should boost the team in the coming weeks.

Brooks is looking forward to having a healthy Little, who has missed the last three games with a thigh bruise.

“All you have to do is look at where he stacks up in the SEC in receiving and rushing performances in a career and where he is in rushing, receiving and all-purpose yards while at Kentucky.” Brooks said of having Little back. “He’s obviously a very, very talented player that’s meant a lot to us when he’s been healthy.”

The senior tailback ranks second at UK in career all-purpose yards (4,749) and fourth in career rushing yards (2,665). He has also rushed for 682 yards this season despite his time off the field due to injury.

Little’s return is reminiscent of last season when he churned out a stellar performance against the Commodores. After missing more than a month because of arthroscopic knee surgery, he carried the ball 20 times for 132 yards and added 114 yards on eight catches against Vanderbilt.

“I’m sure the week off has gotten him well,” said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. “I have a lot of respect for him. He does it all. He catches the ball, he runs, he returns kicks. He’s a heck of a player.”

Although Little will not be 100 percent, he will start and play along with Burton, Brooks said.

Having a week off to heal their injuries helped the Cats recover for the homestretch of the season, Burton said.

“It gave us a chance to get back, relax a little bit, get fresh and just take everything in perspective and get ready for this big game,” Burton said.

Although Burton has only missed one game, he will be healthy for the first time since the Kent State game after battling a sprained ankle and a knee strain for much of the season. The senior wide out expects to practice this week and is anxious to suit up against a much-improved Commodore squad.

“I feel good, I’m excited,” Burton said. “Nobody can tell me nothing this week in practice. I’m ready to go. I’m just excited to be back out on the field healthy.”