October 18, 2011

Newton tries to recover from first half of season

On the first drive of Kentucky's 35-7 loss to Louisiana State on Oct. 1, Morgan Newton dropped back on third-and-three. He saw senior receiver Matt Roark open and fired for what looked like a first down.

Roark dropped the pass, and the Kentucky offense left the field with a three-and-out.

Things didn't get much better for Newton as the day went on, or even in the next week. In the last two games, Newton has gone 10-41 for 74 yards. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he saw a change in Newton in that time.

"You could see how in the last couple weeks how his confidence was shaken a little bit in his receivers and maybe in his pass protection," Sanders said. "There were times his progression took him to somebody, but he didn't have confidence in that somebody so he was looking somewhere else."

But with a week off, some of those passes are being completed in practice, Sanders said. Kentucky's junior quarterback is regaining confidence in his receivers less than two weeks after head coach Joker Phillips said the passing game was "lost." Newton was benched twice in favor of true freshman Maxwell Smith in the last two games.

But Sanders indicated that Newton would be Kentucky's quarterback for the remainder of the season after the Wildcats' 54-3 loss to South Carolina. Since then, Sanders said there have been more passes completed in practice.

For his part, Newton said he still has faith in his receivers.

"Those guys, I'm close to a lot of them," Newton said. "We're close, but it may not seem that way."

Newton isn't the only offensive player to struggle for the Wildcats. Kentucky ranks 118th in the country in offensive yards per game, averaging 229 yards per contest. The offensive line was hit by a rash of injuries in fall camp and stumbled to a slow start, and both of the Wildcats' top two running backs have been injured at times.

The overall ineffectiveness of the offense, including Newton's struggles, still baffles the coaches.

"I think we're still trying to figure out what kind of offense we really are," graduate assistant Andre Woodson said. "Trying to fit the needs for the players we have around (Newton). It's tough to say why we haven't been doing as well as we thought we would be doing."

Newton and the coaches said there's been a difference in what the team does in practice compared to what it has done on the field.

"We just haven't necessarily played well, for whatever reasons," Newton said.

In addition to losing confidence in his receivers, Sanders said he also saw Newton's faith in his protection take a hit. Though the line didn't give up a sack in Kentucky's loss to South Carolina, they've given up 21 this year. The Wildcats had 14 in the 2010 regular season.

When Newton drops back to pass and focuses on the rush, it affects his timing, Sanders said.

"If you ever take your eyes off what's happening down the field and you look at the rush, it's going to make you late on some other things," Sanders said.

Newton's season, in which he has completed just under 46 percent of his passes and thrown seven interceptions to six touchdowns, still has time to turn around. It will take more than just a long drive or big play to get the offense on track, but that could be a starting point for Newton.

"It's been a testing year on him for a lot of reasons, and most of them are pretty obvious," Sanders said. "I think the whole group needs some positive things to happen."

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