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March 31, 2010

UK starts spring with new coach, concerns

Kentucky is coming off a string of four consecutive bowl appearances. That may not sound like much, but it's the best run in school history.

Coach Rich Brooks decided he would go out on a high note, and he deserves credit for making UK football relevant again. Now it's up to new coach Joker Phillips to keep everything on the right track.

Phillips is a UK alum and had been the offensive coordinator, so he knows all about how tough it can be to win at the school. And he has some holes to fill this spring.

Here's a look at the Wildcats as they head into spring practice.

KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE
Randall Cobb is the most explosive player returning for Kentucky this season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Joker Phillips
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in SEC. Lost 21-13 to Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
Spring dates: March 31-April 24.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (5): WR Randall Cobb, G Stuart Hines, TB Derrick Locke, WR Chris Matthews, QB Morgan Newton.
Defense (7): CB Randall Burden, E DeQuin Evans, FS Winston Guy, T Ricky Lumpkin, LB Danny Trevathan, CB Paul Warford, E Taylor Wyndham.
Special teams (1): P Ryan Tydlacka.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Cobb and Locke give the Wildcats two speedy playmakers. Cobb needs the ball in his hands upward of 15 times per game as a runner, receiver and even passer. The coaching staff should use part of spring practice to determine new ways he can be used. The secondary has a chance to be solid even without star CB Trevard Lindley. Guy, a former cornerback, has a chance to be one of the best at his position in the SEC.

HELP IS NEEDED

The offensive line needs four new starters, and the Wildcats also need to develop some depth up front. The passing attack must be upgraded; it was one of the weakest in the SEC last season. The Wildcats need two new starting linebackers, and the big-play ability of inside 'backer Micah Johnson and outside linebacker Sam Maxwell will be missed. The front seven has to get stronger against the run. Outside of Evans, who was solid in his first season after transferring from a junior college, there is no proven pass rusher on the roster. The Wildcats had just 16 sacks last season.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

LB Matt Lentz: Lentz was the backup free safety last season, but he has changed positions this spring. The junior has good size (6 feet 3/218 pounds). If he shows he can handle himself against the run, he'll head into fall drills as the starter at one outside spot.

WR Chris Matthews: Cobb is the Wildcats' best offensive player, but the coaches wouldn't mind someone stepping up to become a clear-cut No. 2 receiver. Matthews, a senior, could be that guy. He had an OK junior season after transferring from junior college, and his size (6-5/215) makes him an intriguing prospect on the outside.

The three quarterbacks: We're cheating here and grouping the trio of sophomore Morgan Newton, senior Mike Hartline and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski together as one entry. Hartline - whose older brother, Brian, was a wide receiver at Ohio State - began last season as the starter but was injured, giving way to Newton. Mossakowski redshirted and had shoulder surgery. Mossakowski is the best passer of the three, Newton the best all-around athlete and Hartline the most polished. It's extremely doubtful any of the three do enough this spring to lock up the starting job, but it's possible one struggles enough that he falls out of the running.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

OT Brad Durham: The Wildcats return just one full-time starter along the line, and coaches are hopeful that Durham - a senior who made three starts last season - can nail down one of the vacant tackle spots this spring. UK doesn't have a lot of experienced depth up front, so it's important for a veteran such as Durham to ease some of the coaches' concerns.

THE BUZZ

The Wildcats have some holes, most notably along the offensive line. Revving up the passing attack is a must. It could be tough to accomplish that during spring ball because it's unlikely the Wildcats decide on a quarterback. Still, it would help if a few guys other than Cobb and Locke step up and show they can be playmakers. The run defense was spotty last season and likely will be so again, especially considering the issues at linebacker. At least Phillips knows defensive coordinator Steve Brown usually wrings everything he can out of his players. While this isn't the usual "a new coach is here" situation, the new coach has some issues he needs to get fixed.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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