December 5, 2011

Big Blue Review: 2011 a season of missed chances

Cats Illustrated report card

Quarterbacks: C-
Morgan Newton tripping over his own feet while dropping back to pass in the season opener against WKU proved to be a harbinger. The highly-touted junior stumbled through eight starts before being injured and giving way to Maxwell Smith. The true freshman was solid, but the offense only showed marginal improvement and he won just a single game. The rest of the offense was far from spectacular, but quarterback play was a problem in almost every game. Matt Roark does receive credit for a gutsy performance against Tennessee, though.

Running backs: C
Injuries hit this group hard. Raymond Sanders opened the year as the starter but was quickly hurt. By the time he came back, freshman Josh Clemons was done for the season after a promising start. Then Sanders went down again, forcing CoShik Williams into the starting lineup. Williams performed as ably as a No. 3 back can be expected to, but the running game didn't do much to take pressure off a passing game that never sustained a rhythm. If you're looking for a bright spot, Marcus Caffey ended up redshirting and should move into the rotation soon. Freshman fullback D.J. Warren was learning a new position, but still showed the ability to be a top-flight blocking back.

Wide receivers/tight ends: F
Perhaps no group held the offense back more than the receivers did. They didn't always get a lot of help from their quarterback, but they dropped dozens of passes and there was never a second option to take pressure off La'Rod King, whose numbers weren't as strong as most expected they would be anyway. There weren't many big plays this year, and that falls mostly on the shoulders of a disappointing wide receiving corps. Jordan Aumiller didn't have a catch a year after being named an All-SEC freshman and despite the efforts of Nick Melillo and Tyler Robinson, there was never much consistency at tight end.

Offensive line:
The offensive line, shackled by injuries in the preseason, got off to an awful start before rebounding in the second half of the season. Part of their struggles may have come because Newton was prone to hang on to the ball for too long, but this unit never reached the lofty expectations laid upon it in August. Now Mike Summers will lose three starters and have to rebuild again. Larry Warford and Matt Smith form a nice tandem inside, but they'll have to improve with so many raw players lining up alongside them in 2012.

Defensive line: B-
Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble were supposed to be better in 2011. They were, but perhaps not as much as everyone had hoped. They'll have two more years together to become the dominant force some have envisioned. In 2010, they were capable, though, holding down blockers so Kentucky's linebackers could finish plays. Collins Ukwu had a nice season that could have been better but for a knee sprain, though the other defensive ends didn't do much to distinguish themselves. There's young talent here. They just need to capitalize in the coming years.

Linebackers: A
It's almost impossible for a player to have a better year at linebacker than Danny Trevathan had. Then there's Winston Guy, who finally lived up to the promise he showed as a recruit - albeit at a new position. Ronnie Sneed was solid and his backup, Avery Williamson proved to be more than capable. Ridge Wilson had a disappointing two sacks, but Alvin Dupree was impressive in limited action. This is a group that often played at a different level than the rest of the team, and people won't soon forget Trevathan for his huge senior year.

Secondary: C
Kentucky actually finished 20th in the nation in passing defense, giving up less than 200 yards per game. But much of that came because teams were leading so frequently that they didn't need to throw. When teams needed a completion - or even a touchdown - they often got it. The secondary was not the reason the wheels fell off this season, but it was one the most deficient defensive unit even with a fair amount of help from Trevathan and Guy. Both corners will graduate, and this groups will have a completely new look whenever a new secondary coach is named.

Special teams: B-
This presents a bit of a quandary. Punter Ryan Tydlacka had a huge year and was probably the second best player on the team. Craig McIntosh made 12-14 field goal attempts and was reliable when the offense gave him a chance to work. But the return game was abysmal. Kentucky was 83rd in kickoff return and 117th in punt returns. The unit as a whole gets a respectable grade, but that's mostly because of Tydlacka's superb showing. He leaves massive shoes to fill with his departure.

Staff summaries

Brett Dawson, publisher
Team MVP: With apologies to the tremendous season turned in by punter Ryan Tydlacka, there's no question that Kentucky's most valuable player was linebacker Danny Trevathan. No offensive player approached Trevathan's sustained and consistent excellence, and defensively, only Winston Guy played in Trevathan's stratosphere. The Wildcats have a chance to improve next season, but there are big holes to fill, and Trevathan's presence will be the most difficult to replace.

Key moment: Trailing Louisville 24-17 but driving, Kentucky appeared to have a first down on a Morgan Newton completion to Demarco Robinson at the Louisville 11-yard line. But Robinson fumbled, and though UK recovered, it forced the Cats into a fourth and six they didn't convert. Louisville held on to win a game that changed the complexion of Kentucky's season.

Telling statistic: Is there anything more telling than Kentucky's average of 135.6 passing yards per game? Neither Newton nor Maxwell Smith established consistency in the passing game, and the inability to move the chains with the pass in long third-down situations meant too much time on the field for the UK defense.

Bottom line: The Tennessee win salvaged something out of what seemed like a lost season. Many players and fans no doubt preferred snapping a 26-game losing streak to the Volunteers to playing in another forgettable bowl game. But UK should have been in position to do both this season, and make no mistake: Phillips' second year on the job goes into the record books as a momentum-halting failure. He deserves more time to get the program back on track, but it plainly went off the rails in 2011.

Steve Jones, recruiting editor
Team MVP: It seems just about impossible to think of anyone who did more for UK than Trevathan, whose fingerprints were all over just about every defensive series of the season. His team-high 143 tackles are clear of second-place Winston Guy by 23. That's impressive enough, but Trevathan also made more tackles than the combine total of UK's two players tied for third-most (Martavius Neloms and Ronnie Sneed with 71 apiece). He also expanded his impact on the game with four interceptions and five forced fumbles. He was a true superstar.

Key moment: We'll go with an early one - Morgan Newton's first-half self-sack in the season opener against Western Kentucky. Newton tripped over his own feet dropping back and fell inside UK's own 5-yard line. Safe bet that was the only time Newton has ever made such a stumble over all the years he's played quarterback, and one 7-yard loss didn't mean a lot in the grand scheme of a game UK won. But it became of the defining play of UK's less-than-impressive offensive performance to open the season. The play was made into a "gif" video file that spread across the Internet as a source of ridicule for Newton and the team, and UK's offense never played well enough for the rest of the season to make anyone forget its early struggles.

Telling statistic: 3,820 yards and 42 touchdown passing with one interception. 606 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing. Those are the senior statistics for UK quarterback commit Patrick Towles, who on Saturday guided Fort Thomas Highlands to its fifth straight state title and his third as the starting QB. From the start of fall camp, fans are going to be calling for Towles, the nation's No. 14 pro-style QB, to get a shot at re-energizing the Cats' offense.

Bottom line: A better-than-average UK team probably could have won seven or eight regular-season games this season, given the early struggles of Louisville and the relative weakness of the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference. But the Cats were largely devoid of playmakers and suffered some notable injuries to its linemen and running backs. The Tennessee win, however, made up for a lot. It was a truly magical day and provided a lot of hope that the Cats can make 2012 better than 2011.

Ben Jones, staff writer
Team MVP: It's hard to pick anyone other than Trevathan. He was a warrior from start to finish and grew into the leadership role that had eluded him as a junior.

Key moment: Maybe Newton would have led Kentucky to wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee. Maybe he wouldn't have. But when Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox knocked Newton out midway through the first quarter on Oct. 29, things changed. Kentucky didn't get an SEC win in its first four games, but got two in its last four thanks to the play of Maxwell Smith and Matt Roark.The Wildcats couldn't find a quarterback to spark them to a winning season, but Smith and Roark had more success than Newton did.

Telling statistic: Mychal Bailey, a senior safety who became Kentucky's only option on kickoff returns, led the Wildcats with 600 all-purpose yards. Kentucky's top four players in all-purpose yards - Bailey, La'Rod King, CoShik Williams and Matt Roark - combined for XXXX yards. Randall Cobb had XXXX on his own in 2010. Kentucky's offense never replaced its playmakers from the previous season, and they paid for it dearly in 2011.

Bottom line: This was a season of tremendous opportunity for teams in the SEC East. If anyone bothers to examine the schedule years from now, they'll remember how mediocre teams like Florida, Mississippi State and Louisville really were. There were enough winnable games for Kentucky to have made a run at 8 or 9 wins if only the talent had been there. Instead, the Wildcats cycled down like the rest of the division. The Tennessee game provided a signature moment for fans to remember, but this was a bad team that missed out on a chance to move the program up in the world.

T.J. Walker, staff writer
Team MVP: I'll go against the grain and pick Ryan Tydlacka. UK's senior punter ranked fifth in the country in punting yards and averaged 43.6 yards per punt. UK's defense should thank Tydlacka for always giving opposing offenses a long field.

Key moment in the season: With 4:49 left in the fourth quarter [db]Morgan Newton]/db] and the UK offense took the field looking to complete the comeback and push UK's winning streak to five against rival Louisville. Instead, Newton threw incomplete to La'Rod King on 4th and 6, allowing Louisville to kill the clock. This prompted a four game losing streak and an offense that looked out of sync.

Telling Statistic: UK's total offense finished 118 overall, behind two win Memphis. The Cats only averaged 4.08 yards per play, the lowest average in the country. There's no denying UK's offense was the worst in the SEC, but this stat shows it was one of the worst in the country.

Bottom Line: UK football didn't have the year anyone expected, and the offense is to blame. Everyone knew replacing Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline, and Derrick Locke would be difficult but no one would expect it to be this challenging. A bad season might not worry Cat fans as much if the future didn't look so bleak. While UK will return nearly every skill player on offense, how high is their ceiling? And the defense, that carried the team, is losing seven players who saw significant minutes, making fans skeptical about next season's outcome.

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