With just one winning campaign since 2000 and five wins in their last two seasons, Rich Brooks and his coaching staff pinpointed year four as the year they could officially be judged fairly on their tenure at Kentucky.
Well, year number four has officially arrived to Lexington and with it come high expectations that Brooks can finally deliver on his promise to turn-around a program formerly entrenched in scandal and mediocrity.
50 lettermen and 14 starters return to help provide uncanny experience for a program that has seen very little of it since the departure of Jared Lorenzen and Derek Abney in 2003. Can the Wildcats quiet the naysayer and finally have the ball bounce their way? Has the effects of probation finally wore off, as the Wildcats close in on 78 scholarship players in the fall of 2006?
Time, as they say, will tell. But one thing is for sure for Brooks and company, year number four will bring very little leniency from the fan base if the ‘Cats don’t go bowling.
It’s put up or shut up time in the Bluegrass … Magic number: 6.
The same bodes as in years past when evaluating Kentucky’s schedule in pre-season.
All things considered - from talent difference, to quality depth, to Kentucky’s past history versus heavyweights Louisville, Florida, LSU and Tennessee - then playing these opponents on the road isn’t necessarily seen as a negative.
Of the four, Louisville seems the most plausible for a Kentucky upset. Junior quarterback Brian Brohm returns from a torn ACL and will be seeing game action for the first time since his season-ending injury a year ago.
Any normal outsider would think Brohm should have some sort of setback in his first game back. Whether or not his setback is sufficient enough to keep the Wildcats in the game is yet to be seen.
Last season the ‘Cats nearly upset highly ranked Louisville, losing by a touchdown after a crushing game-tying drive ended in an Andre Woodson fumble inside the Louisville five-yard line.
The close loss proved that anything can happen in the annual Bluegrass Clash. Kentucky was a 28-point underdog.
Conceding away games at Florida, LSU and Tennessee, the conference slate is as easy as the SEC could make it for the Wildcats, as Kentucky plays impending bottom-feeders Ole Miss and Mississippi State from the Western Division.
The home slate will help Kentucky’s chances at landing a bowl-berth, as the Wildcats host five winnable games against Texas State, Central Michigan, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and UL Monroe.
Georgia and South Carolina complete the seven-game schedule set for Commonwealth this fall, but most Wildcat fans will circle a road trip to Mississippi State on Oct. 28th as the make-or-break opportunity for Brooks and company to garner holiday festivities.
Should the Wildcats defeat Mississippi State, business is anything but complete, as the Wildcats close 2006 with three home games prior to its annual finale versus Tennessee.
6 in 2006?
If the Wildcats can keep the ball off the ground and win the turnover battle, nothing should stand in there way. Even a lack of passing game shouldn’t keep Rafael Little and Tony Dixon from gaining their yards and an improved defense should allow the Wildcats to stay in most games and control the clock.
Pre-Season Offensive Player of the Year
As if there was a question as to whom this should be? Junior tailback Rafael Little does everything but make the Gatorade for the Wildcats on offense and while I expect his role to be significantly less with Tony Dixon returning, I don’t think for a second Brooks and company will keep him off of special teams.
The more times Little touches the ball, the better UK’s chances are of winning.
A very distant second place is sophomore running back Tony Dixon. Dixon, who redshirted last season after having season ending surgery, will not only spell Little at every possible chance, but should offer Joker Phillips’ offense some more ‘two-back’ looks for defenses to chew on this fall. The result should mean that Kentucky will see a lot of ‘8-men in the box’ when Dixon and Little are on the field at the same time.
With Dixon making plays, suddenly an inexperienced and ineffective group of receivers will see man-to-man coverage. If an SEC receiver doesn’t salivate at the thought, they don’t deserve to be on scholarship.
One to Watch
With all the factors above in play, a wild-card to watch for this season is junior wide receiver Steve Johnson.
The junior-college addition should add immediate depth at the wide out position. The 6-foot-3, 220 pounder and is a strong, physical pass-catcher and because of his affinity with blocking on the outside, he should receive plenty of playing time despite being a newcomer to Kentucky’s receiving core.
With Dicky Lyons, Jr. and John Logan struggling to catch the ball with some consistency don’t be surprised if Johnson becomes the number two receiver as early as the Louisville game.
Pre-Season Defensive Player of the Year
Junior Wesley Woodyard’s move from safety to outside linebacker resulted in the LaGrange (Ga.) native leading the Wildcats in tackles. Added weight and strength should help Woodyard shave more blockers and with more experience at the linebacker position this spring and past fall, should help with consistency in assignments.
At 6-1, 220 pounds, Woodyard isn’t going to intimidate anyone up front, but with the added depth behind him in the upcoming year, you’ve got to expect a healthier, more carefree player for four quarters.
A close second behind Woodyard will be senior defensive tackle Lamar Mills.
With all the excitement generated from the solid spring performances of Myron Pryor and Dominic Lewis on the defensive line, perhaps overlooked this summer is the return of former Freshmen All-American, Lamar Mills.
The 6-foot-1, 295 pound bulldozer seemingly is never at a loss for making plays and is finally fully recovered in 2006. He’s penciled in as a starter in front of junior Ricky Abren at left tackle, in what should be one of the more interesting battles this fall.
Mills, when healthy, adds experience and speed on the inside and is a driving force behind the success of defensive coordinator Mike Archer’s 4-3 scheme. Without him in the lineup last year, the defense never generated any pass rush on the inside and was pulverized on third downs.
The success of the defense could rest solely on the defensive front in ’06, and with only two seniors to help anchor the line, the young and inexperienced group will rely heavily on Mills for leadership.
One to Watch
Nobody had a finer – often times dominating - spring audition than sophomore defensive tackle Myron Pryor, who single-handedly took hold of a starting spot on the defensive line, over previous starter Jason Leger.
The Wildcats were especially impressed with Pryor’s conditioning, which had been a subject of criticism in the past. A workhorse in the weight room, the 6-foot-1, 307 pound Pryor was leaner and quicker this spring, becoming unblockable at times.
Whether Pryor can keep himself at his current condition for 12 games is yet to be seen, but with such a talented group of defensive lineman coming in next fall, it won’t be hard to keep him motivated … and quickly.
Rob is a contributing recruiting analyst for Scout.com's East Region and the state of Kentucky. He is currently a liaison journalist for Clear Channel Broadcasting at 630 WLAP-AM in Lexington and 84 WHAS-AM in Louisville, as well as co-host of Kentucky Sports Radio and Rovion's SEC Basketball Preview. He formerly wrote and edited for Inside Kentucky, the magazine and website, and his articles have been syndicated on websites for Yahoo!, CBS Sportsline, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.