College Football Preview: Tom Leach on 'What Cats need for a winning year'

August 16, 2004|TOM LEACH

How do you think the Cats will do this year? Truth is, I gave up these kinds of predictions a few years ago. First, a team or two that looks beatable now will turn out to be better than we think - and the opposite is invariably true as well. And I'm usually a glass-half-full kind of guy so I tend to err on the side of optimism when given the chance.

Louisville is a deserving favorite in the Sept. 5 opener, but I think Kentucky stacks up better than some might say and an upset is certainly a possibility. If that happens, a winning record suddenly will look much more plausible.

But even if the Cardinals prevail, Kentucky could well be favored in four of the remaining 10 games (Indiana, Ohio, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt). And last season, after a disappointing performance in the opener, the Wildcats still had chances to play themselves into a bowl by closing the deals against Florida and Arkansas.


So rather than a game-by-game forecast of the upcoming campaign, I'm going to give you some thoughts on what must break in UK's favor to achieve that winning record and a bowl trip that a group of hard-luck veterans surely deserves.

O-line overachieves

To me, the young men in the trenches are the single biggest key to UK exceeding the expectations most have for this season.

On paper, Kentucky looks to have taken a hard hit with the loss of three senior starters in the offensive line, but I thought last year's offensive line failed to play to its potential. Blame that on injuries, chemistry, failure to click with a new staff, anger over Guy Morriss' departure or some combination of those or other factors, but the bottom line is that the dropoff that appears to exist may in fact not be realized.

Offensive line coach Paul Dunn developed a solid group in the spring that will be supplemented by the addition of junior college transfer Ernie Pelayo and a highly-touted freshman class. The newcomers should provide some much-needed depth and if the offensive line can be an over-achieving group, it'll make every other element on that side of the ball look better.

Boyd blossoms

In his final season with the Big Blue, Shane Boyd is finally "the man." No looking over his shoulder at Jared Lorenzen the first time he misses a read or throws an interception. And he's only learning one position now, too.

Yes, Boyd is a better fit to offensive coordinator Ron Hudson's system, but the coaches tweaked it to work with Lorenzen last season. The problem was that Lorenzen spent too much time dodging pass rushers and having to improvise a play and the running backs had too few holes and broke too few tackles.

Arliss Beach is stronger and perhaps Draak Davis will give UK more of a threat on the corner. And more beef at the tight end position should help the cause, too.

If the line is indeed better and that leads to an improved running game, Boyd suddenly won't have the pressure to carry as much of the load. To me, relaxing is a key for Boyd. The player we see in practice throws the ball much better than the one we've seen in games and without that constant fear of being replaced by the Hefty Lefty, maybe Boyd can blossom.

I have no doubt that he'll make a lot of big plays, both as a runner and a passer. However, it's imperative that he use good judgement because cutting down on turnovers is the single biggest factor that could enhance UK's chances of exceeding expectations.

Defense doesn't rest on its laurels

After the spring game, defensive coordinator Mike Archer chastized his players for poor play, reasoning that they had read too many of their positive press clippings.

With almost everyone returning from last season and some promising newcomers added to the mix, Kentucky could have its best defensive unit since the Claiborne era. But we're still talking about potential here.

The Arkansas game is the best example of the pro and con of last year's defense.

It kept UK "in" the game but couldn't make the big play when it needed to do so. If a group of players more comfortable with a year in the 3-4 system under their belts can make some of those game-turning plays, look out.

Improved punting

When Kentucky surprised the experts in 1999 and 2002 with winning records, Andy Smith and Glenn Pakulak had All-SEC-caliber seasons as punters. I don't know if Anthony Thornton or Seve Sucurovic is ready to move to that level, but whichever one wins the job must improve greatly on last season - and that goes double for their punt protection.

Rich Brooks and his staff were thrust into a difficult situation last season in terms of developing a cohesive team that fully bought into their way of doing things. Brooks wisely didn't push too hard too soon and the fire with which Kentucky was still playing at the end of the disappointing season (except for the egg that was laid at Vandy) speaks to how the coach and his assistants won over many of the skeptics on the roster.

One can look at the lack of depth, the loss of big-time playmakers like J-Lo and Derek Abney and the question marks on the offensive line and paint a gloomy picture for the upcoming season.

But it's just as easy to say a defense with promise, the leadership of Boyd and the improvement that often comes in the second season with a new system are the ingredients for a bottom line that beats the analysts' forecasts. And as I said before, I like to look at the glass as half full.

Central Kentucky News Articles