When I think back to the 2007 season, when the University of Kentucky fielded the most balanced offensive team that the school had put together, well, ever, I think about a running game and passing game that kept opposing defenses on their heels no matter the situation. In a third and short situation, there was really no way anybody could predict what Andre Woodson and company would run.
They could run Raphael Little, Derrick Locke or Tony Dixon for a simple first down. They could take a play-action shot deep to Steve Johnson or Keenan Burton. They could play the possession passing game to Dicky Lyons or Jacob Tamme. They could even throw some option at you.
Particulary in the passing game, UK had a wealth of versatile options that had to be accounted for. You don’t need to look any further than the final receiving stats for last year’s squad to conclude that UK just did have the same variety of options in the passing game.
Granted, Mike Hartline is not Andre Woodson (though he is looking better), but the quality of his targets last season had a lot to do with the ‘Cats inability to keep defenses on the defensive.
The 2007 ‘Cats had three wide receivers (that’s not even counting Jacob Tamme) who caught at least 655 yards worth of balls. Last year’s edition had one—count ‘em, one—receiver who even reach 200 yards on the season (Dicky Lyons with 264). In case you forgot, Lyons played in only the first six games of 2008.
That kind of production, unless you’re Nebraska circa 1995, is not going to get you very far. For that reason, wide receiver has been, along with quarterback, the most talked about position this offseason.
Rich Brooks's offense works best when he can readily go to a three wide receiver set and have all three be legitimate threats. If UK can have three receivers step up to fulfill that, UK could have a very successful season. If only two receivers can be effective, the attack will be limited, but still improved from last year. If UK only has one threat at wideout, it’s going to be tough sledding just like last year. If UK gets no consistent presence from a wide receiver…well, let’s not even consider that possibility.
The Assumed Contributors
Cobb, despite the fact that he devoted much of his freshman year to the QB position and played in only nine games, ended last season as the second-most productive wide receiver (21 catches for 197 yards). Before the Liberty Bowl last year, the staff made a very important decision to move Cobb permanently to wide receiver.
Almost everyone surrounding the program is assuming that Cobb will be successful, and rightfully so. He did everything that was asked of him last year and did it pretty well. It is, however, no guarantee, at least in the short term. Cobb is likely UK’s best athlete on the offensive side. He needs to have the ball in his hands regularly for UK to be at it’s best. The QB has the ball in his hands every snap. At wide receiver, there’s no assurance he will get his touches. Even so, with the talent coming in at quarterback this year, it’s best for Cobb’s and UK’s future for him to make the fulltime switch.
Matthews is a player whose name any fan who follows UK football knows by now. Outside of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, he is likely the UK newcomer that fans expect the most out of, across all sports.
He’s a junior college transfer from Los Angeles Harbor College, where he caught 80 balls for 1235 yards and 10 touchdowns in only nine games, leading Rivals to rank him as the second best junior college wide receiver prospect. Compare that with the 77 catches for 746 yards and three touchdowns that returning wide receivers Cobb, Kyrus Lanxter, Gene McCaskill, Eric Adeyemi, Aaron Boyd, Matt Roark, and Ross Bogue accounted for last season.
At 6'5", Matthews has the size and speed (he ran a 4.5 in the 40 yard dash) to give UK the kind of weapon that not even Keenan Burton or Stevie Johnson were. Matthews is really a walking mismatch. If he can live up to the hype, which he is doing so far, according to early reports, he is going to immediately give UK a huge upgrade at wide out.
Possible Third Options
People are assuming contributions, and big ones at that, from Cobb and Matthews, but this is where things get a little more uncertain. But, as I said earlier, having a viable third option could be the difference between UK eking out another bowl appearance and taking the leap forward that Brooks has been looking for.
One thing that I haven’t yet mentioned is that if a third guy is able to step up, that would really allow Randall Cobb to shift into the Dicky Lyons slot role, where I believe he would be best suited. Having Cobb in the slot would give Hartline (or anyone else under center) a great security blanket like Lyons, but with game breaking skills that can turn a five-yard first down into a 25 yard gain in a split second.
Based on early accounts, Mean Gene is the most likely guy to step up. The Courier-Journal recently published an article about UK’s wide open wide receiver competition, saying that of UK’s second year wide receivers (Adeyemi, Boyd, Roark, RS freshman EJ Fields), McCaskill has stepped up:
“When he was out here, I thought he and Cobb were our two best receivers,” said Joker Phillips, UK’s offensive head coach and wide receivers coach. “McCaskill’s probably improved more than any of the young guys. Randall’s a playmaker, we all know that, but I thought McCaskill was our best route runner.”
Lanxter, a 6'2" junior, is UK’s most experienced option at wide receiver. He had his best performance of the season in the Liberty Bowl, catching five balls for 46 yards and his first touchdown. He is assured to see the field this year, but it appears that he is at best fourth in line at this point.
Battling for Time
Adeyemi played in all 13 games last year, including three starts, but Rich Brooks now says that he is "battling to even be in the rotation." Eric has the kind of speed that can break a game (he was a high school track star), but he has not adjusted as well to the demands of his position as some of his competitors. A redshirt is not out of the question for him.
Fields is a second-year wideout from Frankfort who was redshirted last season and now is fighting to get some balls thrown his way. Just before last season, he sustained a hamstring injury, which made it easy for the coaches to use his redshirt since he was already on the border.
He played QB and corner in high school, so the past year has been an adjustment for him as he has lined up away from the ball for the first time. He has the kind of size (6'1", 198 lbs.) and speed that you look from a wide receiver.
Roark is another guy who moved to wide receiver when he came on campus. He played in all 13 games last year, but caught only one ball for 16 yards. He does bring value on special teams due to his size (6'5"), and blocked a kick last year.
Boyd was the most highly touted of UK’s incoming wide receivers, but struggled to adjust to the college game, which prompted attitude issues and problems with the staff. He is suspended from practice right now due to a violation of team rules.
He has been a disappointment so far, but the staff obviously still has high hopes for him. They may see a redshirt as the best path to fulfilling his potential.
La’Rod is a freshman and yet another player moving to wide receiver. He doesn’t figure to see much time, so a redshirt is a definite possibility.
Everything I have heard so far about Cobb, Matthews, and McCaskill has been positive and I believe UK is going to see these three players step up and demand the ball on a regular basis. They bring a diverse set of skills: Cobb is a gamebreaker with the ball in his hands, Matthews is a mismatch for anybody, and if McCaskill can bring the progress he has made as a route runner from practice to games, UK could well have solved it’s problems at the position.