2001 NCAA Football Preview
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Kentucky Wildcats (2000: 2-9)

The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.

 

Coach and program

The easy part for Kentucky's football team will be playing a game again. In many ways, it should be soothing.

Last season was a forgettable one for the Wildcats, who were 2-9 and lost their last eight games. But the off-season was even worse.

The day before national signing day, head coach Hal Mumme resigned amid allegations of NCAA violations within his program. The school subsequently submitted an internal report to the NCAA acknowledging more than three dozen violations.

Left to clean up the mess was Guy Morriss, the offensive line coach under Mumme and one of the most respected coaches on that staff. Morriss was selected Kentucky's head coach on Feb. 6 and given a one-year contract.

His challenge is immense.

Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are perennial bullies in the SEC's Eastern Division. And suddenly, Lou Holtz has reinvigorated South Carolina. Throw in the threat of potential NCAA probation at Kentucky, and it makes for a dizzying proposition for a first-year head coach.

"Our focus has been on this football team and doing what we need to do to improve as a team, nothing else,'' Morriss said. "We expect to be successful this fall.''

Morriss, who played 15 years in the NFL and went to two Super Bowls, hasn't come in and made sweeping changes. But he's made it clear to everyone associated with Big Blue football that he does expect a certain attitude change.

The firepower in the passing game that defined Mumme's system isn't going anywhere, Morriss said. The only difference is that he will pay as much attention to the running game, defense and special teams.

Offense

Mumme was a one-quarterback coach. He proved that last season when he surprisingly decided to go with Jared Lorenzen (6-4, 275) instead of Dusty Bonner, who led the SEC in six different offensive categories in 1999.

Morriss, though, obviously doesn't mind a little drama at quarterback. Lorenzen, a sophomore who looks more like an offensive tackle than he does a quarterback, was second nationally last season in total offense. He averaged 347.9 yards per game and led the SEC with 335.2 passing yards per game. But heading into the fall, Lorenzen is still fighting to keep his job. Redshirt freshman Shane Boyd (6-2, 239) was on Lorenzen's heels all spring.

Morriss laid down the law that Lorenzen would need to lose some weight. He was somewhere around the 300-pound range when last season ended, but was closer to his listed weight of 275 this spring. Nobody's really saying what Lorenzen's target weight is, at least until he gets there.

The offensive line should be the strength of the team and could be one of the better units in the conference if everyone returns healthy in the fall. Four full-time starters are back, along with a fifth player who has started off and on for the last couple of years. All five are either juniors or seniors. Junior left guard Kip Sixbery (6-4, 320) and right tackle Antonio Hall give the Wildcats a pair of legitimate NFL prospects.

The main cogs in the running game are back, and Morriss is serious about wanting Kentucky to be able to move the ball on the ground. The Wildcats were 11th in the SEC last season in rushing offense and particularly had trouble running the ball near the goal line. Sophomore Chad Scott (5-10, 178) returns at tailback after starting as a freshman and rushing for 611 yards and four touchdowns.

The Wildcats need a few big-play receiving targets to develop this fall, or Lorenzen and Boyd could have trouble keeping defenses honest. The leading returning pass-catcher is junior tight end Derek Smith (6-6, 265). He missed the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but caught 50 passes for 716 yards and five touchdowns last season.

Defense and special teams

New defensive coordinator John Goodner will employ an eight-man front similar to the scheme Joe Lee Dunn uses at Mississippi State. Goodner, previously the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, will go with two inside linebackers and five safeties. The idea is to clamp down on the run and adjust to the pass.

If there's one key on defense for the Wildcats, it has to be senior linebacker Jamal White (6-3, 223). Morriss says White is the best athlete on the team, but that didn't necessarily translate into production the last few years.

Similarly, junior defensive end Dennis Johnson came to Kentucky as USA Today's national defensive player of the year after a stellar career in Harrodsburg, Ky. But in the opener last season against Louisville, Johnson suffered a season-ending high ankle sprain. He was granted a medical hardship redshirt and still has two years of eligibility.

The most unique feature of Goodner's scheme is the pair of safeties (or hybrid outside linebackers) that typically crowd the line of scrimmage. Senior Chris Gayton (6-2 205) and junior David Johnson (6-0, 203) came out of the spring as the starters at the two outside safety positions. But sophomore Octavious Bond (6-1, 209) could wind up being the best of the bunch.

A semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, kicker Seth Hanson was 23-of-24 on extra points and has made 30-of-39 field goals during his career.

Bottom line

As many as 13 players who've started in the last two seasons return on defense. The offensive line is also laden with experience. But as is usually the case with Kentucky, avoiding injuries and any setbacks in rehabilitation from off-season surgeries will be critical. There simply isn't much depth anywhere.

The Wildcats desperately need to get off to a good start. They open at home against Louisville and face Ball State at home the next week. Then comes a road trip to Illinois.

Besting last season's 2-9 nightmare shouldn't be overly difficult. But a winning record? That could be a stretch.

 

   
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