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April 23, 2011

Storylines abound at UK Blue/White game on Saturday

Kentucky caps its spring football workouts on Saturday afternoon with the Blue/White game at Commonwealth Stadium.

Kickoff will be at 3 p.m. EST, and parking and admission are free.

The game will pit UK's first-string players (White team) against the the second string (Blue), and the Blue team will be given a 14-0 lead to start the game.

Here are some storylines to watch on Saturday:

Defensive changes
New co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter has been rigorous this spring in implementing new schemes that will allow the Cats to line up, cover and blitz in multiple ways and often moves players around to different spots.

Senior Winston Guy is a focal point of the new defense, and he has been converted from a traditional safety to a hybrid safety/strongside linebacker.

Guy has lined up almost exclusively in the box during spring practice, a move UK hopes will bring more speed closer to the line of scrimmage.

If you refer to Guy as a safety, you can call UK's defense a 4-2-5 alignment, as there are still two safeties (Taiedo Smith and converted cornerback Martavius Neloms) in the secondary. If you want to call him a linebacker, the Cats are in a 4-3.

UK coach Joker Phillips mentioned Guy multiple times as a standout player at spring practice and said he's embraced his new role.

Linebacker Ridge Wilson now frequently lines up in a down set as a pass-rushing defensive end, another attempt to get UK's fastest defenders attacking closer to the ball.

If Wilson stands up and roams on the end instead of putting his hand down, UK's defense can be called a 3-4 alignment with him as a fourth linebacker.

Junior defensive end Taylor Wyndham now lines up in different spots across the line, including at tackle, depending on personnel, and the Cats hope his quickness will be a weapon.

Also watch Neloms' safety play -- a move that was made to bring his speed and cover skills to the center of the secondary and facilitate Guy's move forward.

Returning All-American tackling machine Danny Trevathan still plays a traditional weakside linebacker position and is a stalwart of the defense, and the staff has challenged him to become a more vocal leader. Watch during the spring game to see how much he is directing and motivating teammates on the field and on the sidelines.

Redshirt freshman Brice Laughlin has an opportunity to make a statement at defensive tackle today and should get plenty of reps now that sophomore Mister Cobble is out recovering from shoulder surgery.

The Cats' defenders have had to digest a lot of teaching from Minter and the staff this spring, learning new calls and packages.

Phillips said the defense "smothered" the offense in the team's second closed scrimmage two weeks, then took a step back the next week as UK installed even more packages.

Watch today to see how cohesive the defense looks. If it gives up some big plays, there's a good chance it's because of a blown assignment or confusion on the field.

Newton is the man at QB
Junior Morgan Newton became the clear-cut starting quarterback after Ryan Mossakowski announced he'd be transferring.

Newton was hit and miss in UK's bowl loss to Pittsburgh in January - his only start of the season - but Phillips has praised his improvement, confidence and understanding of the offense this spring.

Phillips has said his progress is similar to that of former UK star QB Andre' Woodson before Woodson's junior year. (Woodson is now a UK student assistant coach who works with the quarterbacks.)

"I think he's hitting the practice field with a better attitude right now - not that he's ever had a bad attitude - but he understands that every time he comes out here he's got to be ready to play," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "He's got to treat it like it's fourth-and-8 against Louisville or Tennessee."

Fans today should also get an ample look at freshman backup Maxwell Smith, currently the Cats' only other scholarship quarterback. He's a 2010 high school graduate who grayshirted in the fall and enrolled this spring.

The coaches have been impressed by his talent and throwing ability. Should Newton get injured in the fall, Smith's likely the guy to replace him, so his rapid development is critical.

Looking for playmakers
The Cats have lost their four top offensive skill players from last season - wide receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, running back Derrick Locke and quarterback Mike Hartline - so UK has been looking for players to step up.

When asked whether the offense has enough playmakers around Newton, Sanders said, "Ask me again in September, and I'll let you know. I think we've got some talent and ability, but some of them have got to come up and be playmakers for us."

La'Rod King is UK's top returning wide receiver and has shown flashes of star potential this spring, but he has to prove whether he has the stuff of a legit No. 1 receiver in the Southeastern Conference.

Phillips has repeatedly praised wide receiver Brian Adams and said he has the potential to be a breakout player this season because of his speed and height. Adams' practice time has been limited because he also plays for the UK baseball team. (He was expected to play in the spring game this afternoon and the Cats' baseball game tonight.)

Wide receiver Matt Roark also has had a good spring.

Sophomore running back Raymond Sanders is the likely starter after Locke's departure, and Phillips has said he has an excellent understanding of the offense. He has similar size to Locke but lacks his sheer speed.

It's worth watching to see which of backups Jonathan George, Brandon Gainer and CoShik Williams perform well today.

Offensive line as a foundation
The Cats' front five are expected to be a strength of the team, and how well they fare today in opening holes and protecting Newton could give a glimpse into how well the offense will fare this fall.

Left guard Stuart Hines and right guard Larry Warford are as good as anyone in the SEC at their positions.

Watch to see whether Minter's new alignments and blitz packages throw off the big boys up front, or whether they handle it like a top-notch SEC offensive line.

Special teams
It's uncertain whether UK will have a full-out game today that includes all kicking and special-teams aspects. If the Cats do full-scale kickoff and punt returns, it'll be interesting to see who UK lines up deep and how they fare.

Randall Burden, Guy, Jerrell Priester and Sanders are candidates to field kicks.

Senior Ryan Tydlacka seems firmly planted as the Cats' punter, and junior Craig McIntosh is the top place-kicker.

Last year's highly touted kicking/punting prospect Joseph Mansour could get a chance today to show he has the consistency needed to be regular contributor this fall.



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