A new chapter in University of Kentucky football begins this Saturday down in Music City at LP Field (the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans), with kickoff against Western Kentucky University slated for 7 p.m. CST (8 p.m. here) on the ESPN News cable channel.
As one of my all-time favorite NFL coaches, John Madden, once said: “It’s too late to worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon and see how far down the road he’ll take us.”
That’s what I love the most about sports in general and football in particular — those special quotes and sayings that coaches and players bring to the table. And those nicknames, oh those nicknames!
In plain simple football terminology, it’s time to strap the helmets on tight and go to work.
Now let’s take a last-minute look at the product new coach Mark Stoops will put on the field offensively:
Quarterback — It appears that Stoops and Offensive Coordinator Neal Brown have decided on a two-headed monster at QB in redshirt sophomore Maxwell Smith and true sophomore Jalen Whitlow. The book so far on each is that Smith has the better arm and a slight better grasp of the scheme, while Whitlow can get yards with his legs and make busted plays turn into positive plays. It also appears former Fort Thomas Highlands’ star Patrick Towles and true freshman Reese Phillips are headed for redshirt years unless injuries occur to Smith or Whitlow.
It says here that Smith will get the nod to start the WKU game and never look back, with Whitlow settling into the classic backup role with maybe a few token surprises mixed in here and there.
Running Backs — I can’t forget what Mark Stoops said at a public speaking appearance in Hazard earlier this summer: “Don’t take all this Air Raid Talk to heart. We will have a credible running game. I’ll see to that myself.” Translated: We will see a very different version of the spread offense former head coach (and Neal Brown mentor) Hal Mumme ran with Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner, and Jared Lorenzen, and I can’t see the defensive-minded Stoops making fourth-down decisions with the riverboat gambler mentality that Mumme did with his offense.
Seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George will tote the mail early in the year and they’ll be productive, but they won’t be durable enough to make it very deep into the season before sophomore Dyshawn Mobley and all purpose back JoJo Kemp, a true freshman, come on the scene and get all the touches they want.
Receivers — Quite possibly this position is the biggest upgrade on the UK roster, but it will take time for roles to be defined and chemistry to be developed between receivers and quarterbacks. Look for the lone true veteran, junior Demarco Robinson, to lead the pack early in receptions. But it won’t take long for the multitalented freshman trio of Ryan Timmons, Alex Montgomery, and Jeff Badet to have a positive impact on the Air Raid offense. Junior college transfer Javess Blue came into camp a little late, but reportedly has caught up quick and will get plenty of passes thrown his way.
Offensive Line — One of the best things about the Air Raid offense is that its quick release pass patterns help the offensive lineman by not requiring them to hold their blocks very long against those big and lean and quick defensive linemen you see on all SEC teams. Also, the run blocking schemes are more suited for smaller linemen that usually reside in the UK camp.
The left tackle spot, or backside of a right-handed QB, is the most important position on an offensive line, and UK will have its most talented lineman there in junior Darren Miller. The rest of the line is dotted with decent size and experience and a rotation of about seven quality players to work with.
Final analysis: More than likely you can look back at the end of this season and see that the defense will have improved from 2012. But you’ll also be able to trace all wins attained this year to the offensive side of the ball. This year, the UK offense must outscore its opponent to be victorious. But in the future the defense will more than hold it’s own.
It’s that time of year again — and I’ve really grown to dislike doing this — but here I go again with making my 2013 UK football forecast:
Western Kentucky: As I’ve said many times, last year’s WKU win over UK was a classic case of fool’s gold with the assistance of four interceptions. Won’t happen this year, but because of first-game nerves and the hidden respect Bobby Petrino still commands this game will be close. I’ll say UK over WKU, 44-27.
Miami of Ohio: It doesn’t take long for fans to return to Commonwealth Stadium in large numbers and welcome their new leader, Mark Stoops. UK wins, 38-13.
Louisville: Everybody keeps talking about the UofL team that beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. I keep thinking about the Cardinals that lost to Syracuse and UConn and the team that narrowly beat South Florida, Rutgers, and Southern Miss by 2, 3, and 4 points, respectively. And don’t forget the OT gift that Cincinnati gave the Cards. But I’m not foolish enough to be the only media member in the Commonwealth to pick a UK upset, so I’ll go with the flow and say Louisville 38, UK 28.
Florida: Don’t believe for a minute that the Gators have softened offensively or that “the streak” will end this year. Florida 28, UK 10.
South Carolina: Reportedly the ole ball coach, Steve Spurrier, has gone all soft on us and has been very complimentary of our new leader Mark Stoops. He won’t be on this day. South Carolina 31, UK 10.
Alabama: Don’t bring any women or children to this one. The Crimson Tide has always been special on defense. This year they’re special in every phase of the game. Alabama 41, UK 3.
Mississippi State: Here is where we get the first glimpse of the Mark Stoops’s toughness he is trying to instill in the Wildcat program. And don’t forget this is where UK has had a quirky win or two on the road in the past. The first true upset in the Stoops era comes on this day. UK 24, Mississippi State 21.
Alabama State: The Hornets will have no sting as everybody gets a chance to play in this one. UK 41, Alabama State 13.
Missouri: Tigers QB James Franklin will come into this game licking his chops, but he’ll leave licking his wounds after UK wins, 28-20.
Vanderbilt: Everybody wants to jump on Commodore bandwagon after a 6-6 year and only one true winning season. Three of last year’s five SEC wins came against the absolute worst teams Auburn, UK, and UT fielded at their schools in many decades. Anybody remember how fast and hard UK fell after similar success under Rich Brooks? Look for Vandy to take a step back this fall. And don’t forget this is the other SEC school that UK has had success in the past beating on the road. I’m going to put this one in the win column. UK 28, Vandy 24.
Georgia: I love Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, but I think he’s headed for another one of those underachieving seasons that he’s known to have occasionally. Still, UK won’t be able to capitalize. Georgia 30, UK 17.
Tennessee: I think UT and UK were very similar last year in that their records did not indicate their talent level as their coaches were destined to fail. Many people, for some reason, think this game will be UK’s to lose. I guess because it’s in Lexington. I understand, but can’t pull the trigger. Vols 30, Wildcats 27.
Final analysis – I polled 22 members of the statewide media with whom I have a personal friendship and who have covered UK football for at least the last 15 years (some more than 25 years). With 15 of the 22 having responded at this writing, the general consensus is it will be a losing campaign in Lexington, with the majority of the predictions being in the range of five wins and seven losses.
I think everybody keeps thinking about how bad last year’s efforts were, but I don’t think that Kentucky was as bad as the 2-10 record indicated. Last year’s team suffered about every bad break possible, and lost a very productive quarterback after just the third game.
This is a new year with a new coaching staff and new attitude. Best of all, there’s a new look on both sides of the ball. Call me foolish, but I think this team is capable of pulling six wins out of this season.
Columnist Ira Combs lives in Jeff in Perry County where he operates Tri State Sports Media Service Inc. with his brother Harold. Their website is www.combsbrothersonkysports.com.