Photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In his second season as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, Joker Phillips struggled to build upon any success he saw in 2010 when he led the team to its sixth straight bowl appearance.
Though the season started off promising with wins over Western Kentucky (14-3) and Central Michigan (27-13), the Wildcats couldn't keep up once the competition improved. They went just 2-7 in their next nine games, with their only wins coming against FCS foe Jacksonville State (38-14) and two-win Ole Miss (30-13).
Despite a disappointing year, the season ended on a high note as UK defeated Tennessee, 10-7, on Nov. 24, marking its first win over the Volunteers since 1984, thus ending the FBS's longest current losing streak against an annual opponent at 26.
OFFENSE: Against the top-notch defenses in the SEC, Kentucky's offense sputtered a season ago, ranking last in the league in both total offense (259.8 ypg) and scoring offense (15.8 ppg). It also converted a league-low 29 percent of its third-down opportunities.
The silver lining this time around is that the Wildcats return all of their top skill players. Currently, sophomore Maxwell Smith sits atop the quarterback depth chart, and in eight games as a freshman he put up modest numbers at best (819 yards, 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions). Senior Morgan Newton is still around to push for the starting job after throwing for 793 yards, 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last season (albeit on just 47.7 percent efficiency). He bolstered his value in the running game as well, gaining 411 yards with 2 scores.
Though CoShik Williams rushed for just 514 yards last season, it was enough to lead the team. The senior has yet to break out, and this is his last attempt to try and do so.
Kentucky's most productive offensive player last year was La'Rod King, who caught 40 balls for 598 yards and 7 touchdowns. Another solid season this year will hopefully elevate the play of whichever signal-caller is delivering him the ball.
DEFENSE: The Wildcats didn't fare much better in terms of defensive play in 2011, finishing 10th in the conference in both points allowed per game (24.7) and total yards allowed per game (377). It certainly won't help any that their top two defenders Danny Trevathan (143 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles) and Winston Guy (120 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions) have both moved on.
An otherwise depleted defensive unit has the majority of its defensive line back in Collins Ukwu (6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), Taylor Wyndham (14 tackles), Mister Cobble (33 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) and Donte Rumph (31 tackles, 3 tackles for loss). Even though the defense has not played well in years past, Ukwu knows that Phillips has the utmost confidence in the unit.
"It really rubs on us a lot," Ukwu said. "That's coach. He really knows how to get us motivated. We as a team now have something to prove just from last year. Not only coach but also how our performance was last year that really motivates us to be a better team."
Along with Ukwu, safety Martavious Neloms figures to be one of the team's senior leaders, and he will try to improve upon a 71-tackle season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Craig McIntosh made the most of his limited opportunities a year ago, making 12 field goals in 14 attempts. With Ryan Tydlacka graduated, freshman Jay Willmott is expected to take over the punting duties.
Last season's primary punt returner Randall Burden and kick returner Mychal Bailey are no longer on the roster, so it remains to be seen who will fill those roles this fall.
OUTLOOK: It was a rough go of it for Phillips and his squad in 2011, but he is confident that last year's experience will come in handy going forward.
"I think (last season) was huge in gaining confidence, especially when you are as young as we are as a football team," Phillips said. "I think it gave our players confidence that they want to experience some of the same things that some of their classmates did (in years past).
A positive outlook doesn't change the fact that Kentucky has a difficult schedule filled with more talented teams, including home dates with South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi State, and road tilts at Louisville, Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
The best-case scenario for the Wildcats is a season similar to last, where they take care of business against the teams they are supposed to beat (Kent State, Western Kentucky, Samford), but then struggle to find wins against the SEC elite.