It’s natural to think of Kentucky as a basketball school, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. However, Joker Phillips is doing his best to put the football program on the map.
Excitement has been gradually building, and fans are hoping Kentucky can capitalize on a relatively weak SEC East in 2011. Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee aren’t nearly as powerful as normal, which leaves a little bit extra room for a team like Kentucky to make a surprising run.
The Wildcats lost Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, their top two playmakers from 2010. One of the biggest changes in this Kentucky program over the last couple years has been the improvement on the defensive end.
Just a few short years ago Kentucky was a team that had to outscore you to win. In 2011, I expect the defense to be the strength of the team.
Phillips has established himself as a high-energy coach that expects a lot from his players. He realizes that Kentucky had to first establish itself as a perennial contender for a bowl berth, but now Phillips has clearly set the goal much higher. He has made the media rounds earlier this summer, and the most common comment is that he expects Kentucky to be competing for titles rather than just bowl berths.
Phillips is seen as a coach that is liked by his players, but they realize he is all business when it comes to football. Last year Phillips suspended several of the team’s best players for various incidents. What is his biggest goal for his team? Phillips expects the team to “play fast” at all times.
This is the side of the ball where there will be tons of changes. In addition to the loss of Locke and Cobb, the Wildcats also lost Mike Hartline, their starting quarterback from last season. It will be extremely difficult to replace these three players, who accounted for the vast majority of the team’s yards gained in 2010.
At the quarterback spot, Morgan Newton will step in as the starter. Newton saw little action last season, but he showed himself to be an able signal caller during his freshman campaign.
The running back spot is a bigger question mark since Kentucky lost all three of their leading rushers. Raymond Sessions looks like he has the edge at the tailback spot, but Kentucky is clearly still looking for a playmaker in the backfield.
On the positive side, the offensive line should be very good. This is the most experienced unit on the team, and they should do well in both pass protection and run blocking. Though the Wildcats lost Cobb and Chris Matthews at the wide receiver spot, they still have La’Rod King, who has the ability to be a major contributor.
The Kentucky defense returns 10 starters from a group that was much improved in 2010. This is a unit that is starting to make a name for itself by swarming to the football and hitting hard.
The leader of the defense is clearly linebacker Danny Trevathan. Trevathan made 10 tackles or more in all but three of the team’s games last year.
Ronnie Snead is another linebacker that does a great job tracking the football. Keep a close eye on Winston Guy, who will be moving to linebacker from the strong safety position.
The weakness of this defense is their inability to get after the opposing quarterback.
The Wildcats secondary is very good, but the best teams will find a way to move the ball if the front seven doesn’t apply more pressure. The Wildcats ranked 111th in the nation in sacks last season.
2011 Kentucky Wildcats Football Schedule
All things considered, the Kentucky Wildcats have about as easy of a schedule as you could ever get in the SEC. Kentucky doesn’t have to play Alabama or Auburn, and they get Florida and Tennessee at home.
The nonconference schedule is simple, but this young team could have some trouble navigating games that they are expected to win. If the Wildcats are serious about taking the next step, beating Florida on Sept. 24 would be a great way to make a statement.
2011 Kentucky Wildcats Football Predictions
Kentucky lost a lot on offense, and I think they’ll struggle to move the football consistently.
The defense should keep them in most games, but they’ll have trouble shutting down the best offenses in the SEC. The schedule is easy, but this Kentucky team just doesn’t appear ready to capitalize. I expect a finish right around .500.