LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips says the momentum from a season-ending win over Tennessee carried over to off-season workouts where several players gained needed weight and others shedded pounds as needed under strength coach Rock Oliver.
However, Phillips also did not downplay that the Wildcats had plenty of questions going into the start of spring practice after major graduation losses at linebacker and offensive line, as well as inconsistent production at quarterback and receiver last year when the Cats dipped to 5-7 and did not make a bowl game.
“Offensively, we have got to find out first of all who the playmakers are at the wide receiver position and get more consistency at the quarterback position,” said Phillips.
Morgan Newton, last year’s starting quarterback before he injured his shoulder, will participate in some drills but will not throw. Sophomore Max Smith, who threw for 819 yards and four scores before missing the Tennessee win with an injury, will work with the first unit and walk-on Jacob Russell will be his backup.
At receiver, UK returns LaRod King (40 catches for 598 yards and seven scores), but no other player that had more than 10 receptions in 2011. E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill are both No. 1 on the depth chart, but McCaskill will be limited by last year’s knee injury that aggravated him during the offseason.
Three redshirt freshmen — Rashad Cunningham, Daryl Collins and Bookie Cobbins — could provide a needed spark. Cobbins is a converted quarterback and Collins was impressive last fall before injuring his knee before the season opener.
“Daryl will be full speed,” Phillips said Tuesday. “He’s another guy that has got to step up at wide receiver.”
Cobbins is one of the team’s more athletic players, and both he and Collins could be used in the return game.
“One thing we have got to find out is if he has the knowledge level that will allow him to play out there (at receiver),” ¿Phillips said of Cobbins. “A lot of times people think it is easy for a quarterback to go out there. He and Cunningham are two big bodies and we’ve got to find out if they can help us and that’s what the spring is all about.”
Phillips would not rule out incoming freshman Patrick Towles of Highlands having a chance to play quarterback.
“That is a lot of pressure to put on a kid. Can Patrick handle it? Yes, I¿think he can,” Phillips said. “He has been groomed for it. He comes from an athletic family, athletic background. That’s still a lot of pressure. We hope he can contribute. We will put packages together that can help him and put them together as early as possibly can. The key at that position is to play fast. The key for Patrick is to find out how fast things happen.”
The UK¿coach expects Towles to be at spring practice, especially for Saturday workouts.
“One thing I¿have always done as a coordinator is spit out plays to quarterbacks so he can give it back to me. A lot of verbiage is the hardest thing a kid has to learn,”¿Phillips said.
Phillips said sophomore tackle Darrian Miller now weighs 306 pounds and redshirt freshman guard Zach West, both from Lexington, is up to 305. Senior guard Larry Warford has dropped 16 pounds and “is moving well” and will work at center at Wednesday practices when senior Matt Smith is unavailable because he’ll be doing his student teaching. Junior Kevin Mitchell is up to 300 pounds and No. 1 at right tackle with backup Shaq Love, a redshirt freshman, at 301 pounds.
Kentucky lost leading tacklers Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ronnie Sneed to graduation. The top returning linebacker, Ridge Wilson,was booted off the team. That leaves junior Avery Williamson (49 tackles) and sophomore Alvin Dupree (21 tackles in 2011) as UK’s most experienced linebackers.
“Dupree is now at 255 (pounds). That’s what outside backers are supposed to look like. He has gained about 20 pounds and is running well,” Phillips said.
Phillips says Dupree has the “size, speed and knowledge” to line up at different positions as he did as a true freshman last season.
“He has done a lot already and it’s still his freshman year. He has a chance to be a really good player for us,” the UK¿coach said.
Phillips said Williamson had a “solid year” in a backup role in 2011 and was rotating with Sneed by the time the season ended.
“He is 242 right now and one of the better leaders on the team,” Phillips said.
Sophomore Miles Simpson, who had five tackles last year after being moved from running back, will inherit the hybrid linebacker spot Guy played last year. Phillips also said junior college transfer Kory Brown “has a look in his eyes and is a guy who takes care of business on and off the field.” Sophomore Malcolm McDuffen, who played mainly special teams last year, is up to 228 pounds.
Phillips said losing Trevathan, UK’s top tackler, is something the team must overcome and that every player is “replaceable.”
The coach also said dismissing Wilson, who was involved in a drug arrest, was something he had to do and that he had not talked to the player since the incident.
“We hold our kids accountable. We do a really good job holding our kids accountable. We know kids do not always make the right decisions,” Phillips said.. When they don’t, we have to take action. We have done that. We have not had to do that a lot here, but when you do not make a good decision, we do a good job holding you accountable for your actions.”