Earlier in the week, SB Nation's Kentucky Wildcats weblog, A Sea of Blue, reached out to me about the possibility of exchanging interview questions prior to this weekend’s showdown in the Commonwealth. Naturally, I was happy to oblige.
My answers to Truzenzuzex’s questions will appear at A Sea of Blue later today. For now, my inquiries and his responses appear below:
Dawg Sports: When Mitch Barnhart made the decision to keep Rich Brooks when I and everyone else thought he would and should fire his aging football coach, he made a controversial choice that has paid off extremely well. What has Coach Brooks done to restore Kentucky football to perennial respectability, and why did it take so long for Coach Brooks to get over the hump in Lexington?
A Sea of Blue: I will start by answering the second part of the question first, as it is a chicken-egg thing. When Coach Brooks took over at Kentucky, the NCAA sanctions that resulted from the scofflaw Claude Bassett and his boss Hal Mumme's reckless lack of oversight were just starting to bite, he told everyone who would listen that it would take years, maybe as many as five years, for the program to recover. Mitch Barnhart knew Brooks from his previous association with Oregon State, and understood that despite seeing coaches like Zook and Shula dismissed after shorter terms, Barnhart believed that given the time, Brooks would turn the program around. He was unquestionably right in hindsight, and it only wound up taking three years.
What has Brooks done to change the fortunes of Kentucky football? Nothing special, just hard work and savvy scheduling. Brooks knew UK could not reach bowl games by scheduling three tough out-of-conference opponents, so he began scheduling a few cupcakes that allowed the 'Cats to get some wins, some confidence and have a better record. When the scholarship crunch finally ended, Brooks was able to recruit better players, the fruits of which we are beginning to see now with much greater quality depth than we had even during the halcyon days of André Woodson, Keenan Burton, Raphael Little and Jacob Tamme.
Brooks continues to be successful because of careful scheduling, solid but unspectacular recruiting and a tough-minded, no-nonsense style, as Kentucky's best recruiting class in modern history is bound for Commonwealth Stadium in 2009.
Dawg Sports: Especially during the early portion of the season, Kentucky reminded the rest of the league that there is, in fact, a "D" in "Wildcats." Then came the beatdown in The Swamp. Trust me when I tell you that I'm sympathetic to any argument that begins, "Trust me when I tell you we're not as bad as we looked against Florida . . ." Tell me which is the real Kentucky defense and why.
A Sea of Blue: The real Kentucky defense is the defense that we saw at Alabama and against Arkansas, South Carolina and Mississippi State. It is vulnerable to the run, but is usually very good against the pass due to an impressive defensive line. Kentucky does not have the team speed on defense necessary to compete with the wildly athletic Florida offense, just as the Dawgs evidently don't.
Kentucky has a first-tier SEC-quality defensive line, a solid but somewhat slow group of linebackers, and a very solid defensive backfield. Really, the thing that makes our pass defense so good is that few teams have more than one really good receiver, and Kentucky has Trevard Lindley, perhaps the best cover corner in the league. Unfortunately, the Red and Black bring two very good receivers with them into Commonwealth on Saturday -- Mohammed Massaquoi and the true freshman A. J. Green. That will present big problems for our DB's.
Dawg Sports: To describe the 'Cats as injury-riddled would be an understatement. Of the many Kentucky players who have been sidelined by aches and pains, which was the most critical loss and why?
A Sea of Blue: In the first place, we have no right to complain about injury when considering the devastation faced by Georgia this year. It seems that few people realize how truly banged up the Dawgs are, but we are keenly aware of it at A Sea of Blue.
But to answer your question, the biggest injury is unquestionably Dicky Lyons Jr., lost forever due to a PCL tear in his senior season. Lyons was our only receiver with significant SEC experience, and we are not fortunate enough to be able to sign recruits like A.J. Green at Kentucky. Without Lyons, our receiving corps is virtually a bunch of high-schoolers playing against SEC level athletes, and our second best receiver happens to now be our quarterback. Even as creative as Kentucky is offensively, we have not figured out a way for Randall Cobb to throw the ball to himself. We miss not only Lyons' skill, but his quirky yet effective leadership. It hurts to see him on the sideline.
Dawg Sports: We in Bulldog Nation know that Commonwealth Stadium is a challenging place to play. Georgia lost in Lexington in Vince Dooley's last season in 1988, in Ray Goff's second season in 1990, in Jim Donnan's first season in 1996, and again under Mark Richt two years ago. What will the Wildcats have to do in order to pull off the upset on Saturday?
A Sea of Blue: Play nearly perfect football. Georgia has one of the best combinations of quarterback, receivers, and running game in the SEC. The Bulldogs have clearly underachieved somewhat on offense this year, but not because they lack skill players. I have not forgotten the 52 points Georgia hung on LSU in Death Valley. Kentucky will have to put tremendous pressure on Stafford every play, and somehow find a way to knock Moreno down when he gets the ball.
Not only that, we are going to have to score on a veteran SEC defense with a freshman quarterback and wide receivers, and a depleted corps of running backs, some of whom will be playing hurt. Kentucky has not shown the ability to compete in a shootout with the likes of Georgia, so if our defense can't get some 3 and outs or hold Georgia to field goals, it is going to be a tough day in Commonwealth Stadium. Not only that, but special teams have determined the outcome of many of our games. If special teams have a good day, we have a chance. If they have a bad one, we could see a Florida redux in front of our home crowd.
Dawg Sports: Andre Woodson's, Rafael Little's, and Dicky Lyons's careers in blue and white are over. Who is Kentucky's most potent remaining offensive weapon and what will Willie Martinez's charges have to do in order to shut him down?
A Sea of Blue: Randall Cobb, the true freshman from Tennessee. Cobb is a multidimensional player who can run, throw, block and catch. He has been a punt returner in the same game he played quarterback and wide receiver. He is a do-it-all kind of throwback athlete who beats you with a combination of brains, skill, athleticism and toughness.
Cobb will be running a lot of read-option offense Saturday to keep the Dawg defense off balance and force the linebackers to make the correct decision. UK will be running something of a hybrid between a pro-style and a spread-option offense with Mike Hartline stepping in sometimes to run the show and Cobb moving over to the slot. It works, but it has yet to dominate a game like we used to do with Woodson & Co. In fact, against better SEC defenses, it has struggled to put points on the board.
You can't really shut Cobb down, because he plays too many positions. But it is possible to limit him by making good decisions in the linebacking corps and locking up our young receivers. If the Georgia defensive line does not overcommit and just stays in front of him, he'll have a hard time throwing downfield because he is only 5'11". When he moves to the slot, you'll have to blanket him, because he will catch anything thrown his way.
Dawg Sports: If you could cause one of the following three players, Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green, or Knowshon Rockwell Moreno, to miss the team's charter flight to Lexington, which one would you most like to see stranded in Athens for the weekend and why?
A Sea of Blue: Definitely Moreno. When we are able to stop the run, we are competitive. We have given up yards through the air and still won, but when we give up big yardage on the ground, we have not fared as well. Moreno is just devastating when he gets into the secondary, and our tackling has not been terribly sure of late. We could cover Green with Lindley (although I'd still worry about Massaquoi) and Stafford is great but has a tendency to throw untimely picks. But Moreno is a killer.
Dawg Sports: What are the long-term prospects for Kentucky football after Coach Brooks retires? Will Joker Phillips be able to maintain the status quo, will he take the Wildcats to the next level, or will the program falter under his direction? Where will Kentucky football be five years from now?
A Sea of Blue: Phillips is our best recruiter, so I see that part being just as strong when coach Brooks finally hangs up his clipboard. I have written at length about the difficulty of taking any SEC team from the lower tier into "the next level", and I am not confident it is possible at all. So from that perspective, I suppose I would be happy if UK football could become a solid mid-pack team with occasional forrays into competitiveness for a divisional title. Personally, I don't see us getting to the level of a Georgia or Florida, at least not in my lifetime.
In the next five years, I think you will see a Kentucky team that plays gradually tougher out-of-conference competition and consistently reaches bowl eligibility. We may have a year or two where we win eight or even nine games, but I don't see a BCS bowl for Kentucky that soon, let alone an SEC championship. Still, I see UK as a program on the rise, and it has a lot of room to grow both recruiting-wise and in terms of respect around the league. UK has solid support from fans who are just now learning how to cope with limited success in the SEC. I think Joker Phillips can continue to improve this program for at least seven to ten more years. After that, who knows?
My thanks go out to Truzenzuzex for suggesting and being willing to take part in this exchange.