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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Kentucky

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Kentucky...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 8-5 (3-5 SEC, T-4th East)
2003-07: 25-35 (11-29 SEC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2003-07: 45 • 67 • 36 • 54 • 57
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (5 Offense, 8 Defense)
Best Player
The all-conference teams ignored sophomore Jeremy Jarmon because of his low profile coming into the season, but a repeat performance (50 tackles, 9 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss) will command attention. He had two multi-sack games, against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and was everywhere against Arkansas: 7 tackles, one sack, a QB hurry and two forced fumbles. Not that a repeat is likely: it looks like he’s moving down to tackle from end, where the stat sheet will only make him more obscure.
In Case You Missed It...
The story of 2007 in Kentucky was a, uh, blast from the past, if you will, about the the 1962 "Thin Thirty" team chopped from 88 players to 30 by Bear Bryant acolyte Charlie Bradshaw, and maybe some of the extracurricular activities of a few teammates:

According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Ragland contends that the players involved probably didn't view themselves as taking part in gay sex. Rather, he says, they felt they were "gaming" the situation. "It was like, 'I'm getting paid for doing this? I'm putting something over on them,'" Ragland said. "Most of these guys were from rural areas and modest backgrounds. They had no real concept of homosexuality."
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There was the whole game-fixing thing, too – not to mention the ruthless methods that cut the numbers down, i.e., players blindsiding teammates in the huddle on coaches’ orders during practice – but "Rock Hudson" and "gay sex scandal" in the Bible Belt moves product. Well, to an extent: it’s #71,881 on Amazon. But sixth in books about Kentucky!

*According to Rivals
What's Changed. In yards from scrimmage alone, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme were 60 percent of the offense each of the last two years. That's before you account for Little's and Burton's contributions in the return game or the dozen games the quartet missed since September `06; seven of those were by the vastly underappreciated Little, who led the SEC in all-purpose yards per game as a sophomore, would have led with a couple more touches to qualify as a junior and finished just behind Arkansas' dual first rounders last year. Tamme was first team all-SEC at tight end two years in a row, Johnson led the league in receiving yards as a senior and the only player in the conference who covered more cumulative yards than Burton the last two years is Darren McFadden. All four are graduating.

So, now, let's talk about André Woodson. If the offense had a quarterback, it wouldn't look so bad: two adequate, experienced running backs (Tony Dixon and Derrick Locke, diminutive hero of the LSU upset) return in Little's place with Dickie Lyons, who himself has topped 1,000 all-purpose yards two straight years. With Woodson, though, everyone else seemed like just a role player piggybacking on his raw physical brilliance, junky delivery and all. Even if he had the entire arsenal of skill players back, the new quarterback - whoever that is - wouldn't have a prayer of matching Woodson's production: 71 touchdowns in two years to 18 picks, and 14 games with a completion rate over 65 percent. UK's record in those games: 11-3. When he completed fewer than 60 percent: 2-6. The SEC average last year was 57 percent. Woodson was that real, rare diamond in the rough; if there's anyone in the wings even capable of tightening that amount of slack, he's a master of secrecy.

What's the Same. The probable starting defense will feature zero seniors, but it's still experienced (eight returning starters, seven of them multi-year starters), and all in all more talented than it's been in years - the offseason focus will be on Wesley Woodyard's graduation, but the top nine tacklers behind him are back, and once fawned-over prospect Micah Johnson will at least match Woodyard's presence if he keeps his head on straight; he was suspended along with his brother last Spring but has played in all but one game in two years, so reputation may exceed reality on that front. Safety and team-oriented rapper Marcus McClinton will be back after missing most of the second half of last year.

There should be some real hope for this defense, which was almost mediocre at times under new coordinator Steve Brown after four years of oppressive woe under Mike Archer:

UK Defense Under Rich Brooks: SEC Rank, by Category
Rush Pass Eff. Total Scoring
2003 11 7 11 10
2004 11 10 12 12
2005 12 12 12 12
2006 12 12 12 12
2007 10 8 10 12

So it still gave up more points than any other defense in the conference. Progress is progress: the fact they didn't finish last at everything for the third year in a row is proof this group is capable of improving. Slowly but surely.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Curtis Pulley, what! It was Pulley, you might recall, who lit Kentucky's high school ranks aflame in 2004 and was poised to save Wildcat Football from another year of André Woodson's incompetent bumbling in 2006. Ahem. Pulley spent that season bumming around at receiver as Woodson's stock soared, catching a handful of passes and flunking out of school. He withdrew the next spring and re-enrolled to redshirt last fall. He's competing this spring for the starting job with Mike Hartline and Will Fidler.

Hmmm. Throws a little better on the run. We can fix that.
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Most coaches, working a tantilizing athlete into a position previously occupied by a mostly immobile, pocket-bound slinger, might consider some version of the spread, at least in limited, package form, to take advantage of his strengths. You know what Rich Brooks thinks of the spread? He'll tell you exactly what he thinks of your "spread": it's bullshit, is what he thinks: program that has decided not to copycat the spread is Kentucky. Even though its most experienced quarterback (Curtis Pulley) is known more for his running than his passing, UK Coach Rich Brooks and offensive coordinator/head-coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips both said UK will stick with the multiple, pro-style offense that they've employed since Brooks took over in 2003.

"I guess you could look at a guy like Curtis and assume we're going to the spread," Phillips said. "But you'd be making a wrong assumption."

Brooks' first two quarterbacks at UK, Jared Lorenzen and Shane Boyd, made NFL rosters. And the recently departed Andre Woodson will get drafted later this month.

So Brooks figures, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"One of the things that has the attention of recruits is what we've been able to do with our offense," Brooks said. "So we're going to keep doing what we've been doing."
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Read his line again, and you can hear coach-in-waiting Phillips' teeth gritting from your desk: "You would assume we would go to the spread, with the best spread quarterback this cracker state will produce in the next 25 years. Look at him. You would assume that, wouldn't you, since his particular skills are so perfectly suited to the system tearing up our league? You might think we'd make a simple decision so obvious a deadbrained beat reporter can figure it out. You'd be making the wrong assumption." Just keep telling yourself, Joker: 2010, 2010, 2010. If Brooks turns up at his sturdy breakfast table with his tongue out of his mouth between now and then, get his Muselix to the lab and make sure Phillips doesn't leave the state.

Kentucky on You Tube. Rapelling in the UK library:

You send your kids to college hoping they become something, and they exceed your wildest dreams. Actually, this sort of thing seems to be something of a tradition at WT Young. Watch those in order.

See Also: Somebody took the time to put together a clip of the entire 2007 Wildcat roster, but not to spell all the names right? Braxton Kelley - or "Braxten Kelley" - appreciates the effort, we're sure. ... Someone named Mr. Fab loves Kentucky and its, uh, fight song. ... And Steve Johnson may be a good receiver, etc., but he could use some tips from Marcus McClinton when it comes to UK-themed freestyle.

Best-Case. The defense holds its own and Pulley, finally entrenched, is everything his recruiting hype held him to be three years ago. If UK can score enough get by Louisville again in the opener, it has a clear route to a 4-0 start, and shouldn't be a substantial underdog (if it's an underdog at all) in any of the first three SEC games, against Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas. It's probably pie-in-the-sky to expect the Cats to win all three of those and head into Florida 7-0 - I can't prove it, but judging from annual records, it's probably been at least 58 years since Kentucky started 7-0, if it ever has - but they can conceivably make it to 6-1 before things get rockier. UK hasn't even had a winning record in-conference since 1977, so breaking even there and hitting eight wins for the third straight year (again, hasn't happened since the Bryant era, 1949-51), would be a pretty substantial effort.

Worst-Case. With so much exiting on offense, no consistent running game to take pressure off of a potentially unsettled quarterback situation and a perpetually hopeless defense, no SEC win is guaranteed. If UK can't beat Louisville in the opener, it will have to win three games in the league just to be eligible for a postseason return, assuming it doesn't get sniped by Norfolk State, Middle Tennesee or Temple in September. Which three? Vanderbilt...and...? The most forgiving game beyond Vandy is Mississippi State, which thumped the Wildcats last year in Lexington. At worst, if the offense returns to its bottom-dwelling days, the team falls into a rut and loses all sense of momentum, it could be as bad as 3-9 with no SEC wins - they're not far removed from that type of season, and if it happens that way, they're probably also not far removed from the formal inauguration of the Joker administration.

Non-binding Forecast. Until there's reason to be even a little confident about the quarterback, the worst-case seems more likely than the best. The defense is not likely to improve past mediocrity, and even if it holds its own for a change, the offense is dependent on a cast of lightly-regarded contributors with no experience in starring roles. And we are still talking about Kentucky, a traditional bottom-dweller in terms of talent bidding adieu to its undisputed MVP - and the runners-up, in Little and Woodyard - of the decade. It would be one of Brooks' best coaching jobs to win three conference games and break even overall.