by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

So they play football at Kentucky, eh?

Of course they do, even though it might be the only basketball-centric outpost in the SEC.

Don’t think for a minute, however, that Big Blue Nation wouldn’t some day love to be involved in the BCS, or whatever name they’ll be attaching to the upcoming playoff system two years hence. Although the Wildcat football faithful can usually be satisfied with a competitive product that reaches bowl games most seasons, while the fan base saves it real passion for hoops.

But given that little taste of the good life that was five straight bowl bids between 2006-10, UK boosters are suddenly a bit itchy after last year’s Cats missed the postseason altogether. The 5-7 mark of a year ago doesn’t suggest a complete disaster, but it was an ugly 5-7, losing by scores such as 48-10, 35-7, 54-3, and 38-8...to Vanderbilt.

And that unsightliness is a main reason why SEC sources are suggesting that third-year HC Joker Phillips (above left) is looking at a crossroads campaign this fall, perhaps to save his job.

There’s a rather recent development, however, that has changed the dynamics in the region, and Lexington in particular, involving events during the offseason in Fayetteville. Bobby Petrino’s escapade with a motorcycle and an on-staff mistress might have ended his tenure as the Razorbacks’ coach, but he’s not radioactive enough to be out of work forever. Already, the rumor mill is whirring in the region as to where Petrino might land next.

Tennessee, where Derek Dooley is under the gun? Probably not, with new AD Dave Hart unlikely to make a controversial hire for the Vols so soon after the Bruce Pearl fiasco on the basketball side, or hire a potential flight risk after Lane Kiffin bolted Knoxville after just one season in 2009.

Kentucky? Now we’re talking.

Indeed, many SEC insiders suggest the Wildcats, who have never had trouble justifying hiring of coaches with some blemishes in their past (John Calipari immediately coming to mind), would not flinch at the prospect of enlisting Petrino. Who, for any personal faults, is also an established winner at the college level whose teams have usually posted big, if not huge, offensive numbers. At the same time, there is growing skepticism about Joker’s credentials as a head coach, especially with his offense going into eclipse a year ago.

If anything, the Wildcat program seems to be regressing since Phillips, the designated coach-in-waiting for the final years of the Rich Brooks regime, was finally promoted to the top spot upon Brooks’ retirement following the 2009 campaign.

Still, Kentucky football has never been an easy job, which partly explains why the program has had so much trouble sustaining its occasional successes over the decades despite the involvement of some respected coaches such as Blanton Collier, Jerry Claiborne, and Bill Curry. Demographics have also always been tough for the Wildcats to overcome on the gridiron; squeezed to the south by Tennessee, and to the north by Ohio and Indiana in Big Ten country, UK has rarely been able to prove a magnet to top out-of-state recruits. Mostly, the Cats have been forced to live with in-state products, augmented once in a while by recruits from elsewhere.

The pro-Petrino faction, which is reportedly growing quickly in Lexington, believes a high-profile coach such as Bobby P. might be the only way to overcome that handicap, and that Joker is not looking like the guy to fill the bill. In the past, in-demand mentors have been hard for the gridiron Wildcats to secure. But since there might not be many in the region willing to take a chance on Petrino, a rare opportunity to land a big winner could be just a few months away. Which presents a tricky scenario for many UK faithful, who know that AD Mitch Barnhart would find it hard to pull the plug on Phillips if the Cats can rally back to bowl-caliber status this fall.

Although, in the end, money always talks at UK. And if the big boosters tell Barnhart to go and get Petrino after this season, Joker had better have a pretty good bowl bid in his pocket to prevent a buyout.

This subject is not getting a lot of coverage in the national media (read ESPN), which focuses its SEC attention almost exclusively on the Alabama-LSU-Georgia-Florida-Auburn-Steve Spurrier at South Carolina-angles these days, but we believe the “where Petrino lands” tale might prove one of the more fascinating storylines of November and December. Stay tuned for further developments.

Of course, Kentucky football history has been an often-checkered one ever since Bear Bryant left the Bluegrass State for Texas A&M after the 1953 season. Wins have often been elusive as the focus in Lexington has instead mostly been on hoops since the days of Adolph Rupp; indeed, the Cats once went 25 years between bowl visits (1951-76), and it is no secret that Bryant’s departure was due in part to his belief that Rupp received preferential treatment from the school (which Rupp indeed did).

Well-regarded coaches such as former Bryant assistant Charlie Bradshaw (whose first team in 1962, dubbed the Thin Thirty, was the subject of a 2007 book of the same name penned by Shannon Ragland) and former Ara Parseghian Notre Dame aide John Ray failed miserably in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Cats began to win under former U of Tampa coach Fran Curci in the late ‘70s, but, in a theme that has recurred in Lexington, the reward for those few years of success was a stiff NCAA probation for recruiting violations. Which in turn prevented the best UK squad since Bryant’s 1950 team (which featured QB Babe Parilli and shared a piece of the national title), Curci’s 10-1 side from 1977 led by dynamic QB and future NFL TE Derrick Ramsey (right), from participating in a bowl.

The respected Claiborne and Curry, though experiencing brief periods of success (more so for Claiborne, who had a pair of bowl teams in 1983-84), each ended their UK careers with losing records, with Curry forced out after the 1996 season. The probation-after-success theme was repeated in the late ‘90s under pass-happy HC Hal Mumme, whose teams featuring QB Tim Couch qualified for back-to-back bowls in ‘98-99, but eventually incurred the wrath of the NCAA as well after rampant recruiting violations that would eventually cause successor Guy Morriss to leave for Baylor, rather than endure a no-bowl probation season, in 2003.

Indeed, the most extended period of success in Lexington since the Bryant era occurred under the aforementioned Rich Brooks, whose last four teams qualified for the postseason between 2006-09 (without any NCAA sanctions!) before the reins of the program were turned over to Phillips in 2010.

Make no mistake, however, Joker is entering a must-win season this fall after a couple of uninspiring seasons in charge. The doubters began to surface late in the 2010 campaign when the Cats were underachieving despite loads of SEC-caliber weaponry including WR/QB Randall Cobb (who thrilled the Green Bay Packers with his kick-return ability last fall), RB Derrick Locke, and QB Mike Hartline, yet could do no better than 6-6 in the regular season and were lifeless in an ugly BBVA Compass Bowl loss in Birmingham against lightly-regarded Pitt.

Phillips’ immediate problem is how to inject life into a pro-style offense that reverted to horse-and-buggy mode last fall, held to 10 points or fewer in half of its games and ranking embarrassingly low in most significant categories (114th in passing at a mere 135 ypg, 117th in scoring at a puny 15.8 ppg, and 118th in total “O” at only 259.8 ypg).

The upgrades must begin at QB, where soph Maxwell Smith (right), thrown into the fire as a frosh when Morgan Newton went down with ankle and shoulder problems, took the majority of reps in spring and enters fall camp as the expected starter. Smith offered a few glimpses of hope a year ago but tossed only 4 TD passes in seven games, and his credentials as an SEC playmaker are far from confirmed. Newton, who had bombed badly last season before going down, might not be recovered from shoulder surgery in time to offer an alternative for the opener at Louisville on September 2.

At least Phillips is probably not going to have to resort to WR Matt Roark as an emergency QB as he did for the Tennessee finale a year ago, when the Cats didn’t complete a pass beyond the line of scrimmage yet still ended a 27-year drought in the Battle for the Barrel in a 10-7, season-ending upset, which some UK backers have compared to making a 35-foot putt to salvage a double-bogey. (By the way, if you’re wondering why Dooley is on such a hot seat in Knoxville, there’s part of your answer.)

But Joker’s “joker” this fall could be ballyhooed true frosh QB Patrick Towles, a 6'5, 232-lb. Fort Thomas product and last year’s prep “Mr. Kentucky Football” winner after leading Highlands High to three straight state titles. (Towles, by the way, is also the grandson of former Kentucky senator and Baseball HOF pitcher Jim Bunning.)

Some SEC observers insist it’s not being overdramatic to suggest that Towles might hold the future to Joker’s employment. If Maxwell Smith continues to look unconvincing and Newton an unlikely alternative, it is no stretch to assume that Towles will get a chance at some point this fall, perhaps as a potential savior for Phillips. No pressure here, Patrick.

At least Joker and veteran o.c. Randy Sanders think they might have a few playmakers to surround their QBs, especially if waterbug sr. RB CoShik Williams (left, vs. the Vols last November) picks up where he left off late last season when erupting for a pair of 100-yard games. Soph Josh Clemons, who broke an 87-yard TD run in an early-season win over Central Michigan before going down for the count last October with a knee injury (which kept him out of contact drills in spring), could be another alternative.

Meanwhile, 6'4 sr. wideout La’Rod King (right) has NFL scouts interested after providing the lone downfield receiving threat a year ago when catching 7 TDs among his 40 receptions. Whippet-like soph WR Demarco Robinson (5'10 and only 157 pounds!) hinted at a breakout in spring and could prove an interesting deep threat if one of the QBs has the time to get the ball downfield. Robinson’s presence could also be felt in a kick-return role this fall, especially on punts, where the Cats gained a puny 1.8 yards per return in 2011.

Getting time to throw, however, might be wishful thinking against the many SEC defenses on the schedule, especially with an already-suspect OL that lost three starters from a year ago. The left side of the forward wall is especially young, with soph T Damian Miller and RS frosh G Zach West entering fall camp on top of the two-deeps at their respective positions, but whether either are SEC quality remains to be seen. At least sr. PK Pat McIntosh, who hit 12 of 14 FG tries last fall and has distance beyond 50 yards, provides some cover in case the “O” bogs down in enemy territory.

There does seem to be some of that “SEC quality” on a defense that mostly upheld its end of the bargain last season under veteran coordinator Rick Minter, whose ever-changing looks (using a combo of 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, along with zone-blitz packages) kept some opponents off balance a year ago. But Minter must replace the SEC’s top two tacklers in the LB Danny Trevathan (taken by the Denver Broncos in last April’s NFL Draft) and S Winston Guy (selected by the Seattle Seahawks), whose leadership voids will need to be filled, and the Cats are advised to shore up leaks in a rush defense that permitted a hefty 187 ypg (ranking a subpar 87th nationally) a year ago.

Like the offense, only five starters return on the stop unit, although the line could be a source of strength with massive, 315-lb.-plus jr. DTs Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph (left) both on NFL radar screens, and sr. DEs Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham have starting experience. Replacing OLB Trevathan, one of the most-productive defenders in school history, could be a challenge, yet there is hope that true frosh Khalid Henderson, an Atlanta-area product and already assigned Trevathan’s old number 22, could emerge immediately as a playmaker. The entire starting LB crew from a year ago must be replaced, with hopes that Henderson can hit the ground running, perhaps in tandem with holdovers soph OLB Alvin Dupree and jr. MLB Avery Williamson, who each began to make an impact late in 2011.

But Minter has to be crossing his fingers with his mostly-rebuilt secondary that will have to compensate for the departure of the hard-hitting Guy. Cat backers are paying especially close attention to the CB spots which will feature a pair of new starters including RS frosh Marcus Caffey, a converted RB, while Guy’s leadership role will likely be assumed by sr. S Martavius Neloms (right, last November vs. Vandy), who is the team’s leading returning tackler. A couple of frosh DBs, twins Zack and Daron Blaylock (sons of former NBA guard Mookie Blaylock), could break into the secondary rotation, especially Zack, a safety who returned five picks for TDs as a high school senior.

There is no such thing as a soft slate in the SEC, and the Cats are projected to be underdogs in all eight of their league games. There are a couple of very winnable dates on the non-conference slate (Kent State and Samford both visiting Commonwealth Stadium), but if Joker can’t beat in-state foes Louisville and Western Kentucky in early games, the war drums in Lexington are going to start beating loudly by mid-September. Phillips has also proven a mixed bag vs. the number the past two seasons, posting only a 12-13 spread mark.

Summary...While most of the national eyes are going to be looking elsewhere in the SEC, regional insiders are going to be paying close attention to goings on in Lexington this fall. The Bobby Petrino-to-Kentucky rumors have already begun to circulate, and the Cats didn’t promote Joker Phillips to succeed Rich Brooks for the Kentucky offense to go on hiatus like it did a year ago. If the Cats were in Conference USA or the Sun Belt, their offensive issues might be easier to camouflage, but not in the SEC. Joker either finds some answers on the attack end, and quickly, or we might be previewing the 2013 UK edition with a different coach (and if so, we’re betting it’s Petrino) next summer.


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