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UK football players open spring practice, looking to replace seniors, hold off signees

While most of the Bluegrass State continues to focus on the UK men’s basketball team’s chances of winning its eighth national championship, the Wildcat football team is back in action as well.


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Spring practice for the UK football team opened Wednesday, offering a chance for returning players to find a spot on the depth chart before freshmen arrive on campus in the fall.


The Wildcats are coming off a 5-7 season, but were boosted by a surprise win versus Tennessee in the season finale.


Spring practice is closed to fans until the annual Blue/White Game on April 21, but here are five storylines to follow until then.


Defensive secondary looks to replace production


The UK defense lost both is starters at cornerback from the 2011 season in seniors Anthony Mosley and Randall Burden. The Wildcats return rising senior Cartier Rice, who appeared in all 12 games as a junior, at one corner position but list redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey as the starter at the second corner position.


Caffey signed with UK as a running back and moved to cornerback in the offseason.


“(In) the secondary, a lot of people have more concerns than we do,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips.


Phillips noted that Rice was essentially a starter by the end of the season, as he was playing on every other defensive series.


“I feel like Cartier is one of those guys that was a starter for us,” he said. “I think that’s enough confidence that we are showing hin him that he is a starter.”


While Caffey has little experience, he offers the Wildcats size at the position they haven’t had in recent seasons, Phillips said.


“You look out there last year, we were hurting 70 pounds on both corners,” Phillips said. “Hard to hold up against the guys we have to play. This guy is 200 pounds right now, about six foot and a half (inch), moves really well.”


Several teams recruited Caffey as a cornerback, but Phillips said they convinced him to come to UK in part for the chance to play tailback.


“We promised him a chance to play at the tailback position, and we did” he said. “But we feel like his best chance to help this steam in a hurry, make us a better football team is at the corner position.”


Rice is followed by rising sophomore Eric Dixon, who tallied four tackles in 12 games as a freshman, on the depth chart. Caffey is listed ahead of rising redshirt sophomore Eric Simmons, who has not appeared in a game yet in his UK career.


Defense faces big holes left by Trevathan, Guy


UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter faces the task of replacing two of the most prolific tacklers in UK history in departed senior linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy. While Trevathan and Guy combined for 263 tackles last season, Phillips was quick to say Tuesday that the Wildcats can replace their production.


“Everybody is a replaceable,” he said. “Everybody better understand that. I understand that, and they better understand that. Everybody’s replaceable.”


The tackling load lost with Trevathan will likely be split between several players, including rising junior Avery Williamson and rising sophomore Malcolm McDuffen. Williamson is listed as the starter at middle linebacker, and McDuffen is listed as the starter at weakside linebacker.


“You remember, Danny didn’t play a lot of football before his breakout season as a junior,” Phillips said. “This is Avery’s junior season. Avery has played a lot more football than Dany. McDuffen has played a lot more football than Danny did at this same stage.”


UK lists rising sophomore Miles Simpson as the starter at Guy’s vacated hybrid safety/linebacker position. Simpson totaled five tackles in 10 games as a redshirt freshman.


Junior-college transfer Kory Brown will be the first newcomer with a chance to earn playing time as he compete with Simpson and redshirt freshman Josh Forrest for time at the hybrid position.


“(I’m) real excited about him,” Phillips said of Brown. “Real excited about this guy because of the look in his eyes, a guy that takes care of his business on and off the field.”


Quarterbacks with much to prove before Towels arrives


The cornerstone of UK’s incoming recruiting class is freshman quarterback Patrick Towles. UK’s most memorable performance from a quarterback in 2011 came from wide receiver Matt Roark in the Tennessee win. Rising senior Morgan Newton and rising sophomore Maxwell Smith were struggled for most of the season in stints as the starter before the finale.


Some fans are already calling for Towles to start from day one.


“That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid,” Phillips said. “Can Patrick handle it? Yes, I think he can handle it, the pressure, because he’s been groomed for it.


“We’re hoping that he can come in here and contribute. We’ll try to put some packages together for him to help him as early as we possibly can, to give him a chance to play fast for us.”


In the meantime, Smith and Newton will compete to retain their jobs.


Smith is listed as the starter at quarterback with Newton listed as his backup. Newton will not throw in spring camp as he continues to recover from offseason surgery, but he will participate in other drills. Eastern Kentucky transfer Jacob Russell will also receive backup reps in practice.


“We’ve got to find out first of all again this year who the play-makers are at the wide receiver position and have a little bit more consistency at the quarterback position,” Phillips said.


Young receiving corp still has much to prove


The wide receiver group was among the most maligned on the team last season, and only one returner at the position tallied more than 10 catches last season. The group also lost its position coach this offseason when Tee Martin left for Southern California. New wide receivers coach Pat Washington will have to learn his personnel on the fly this spring.


Phillips lists rising seniors La’Rod King, E. J. Fields and Gene McCaskill as the wide receiver starters on his pre-spring depth chart, but a crop of freshmen and sophomores will push for playing time as well.


Redshirt freshman Daryl Collins appeared to have worked his way into the rotation during fall camp last year, but dislocated a kneecap late in camp and missed the entire season. Collins will be at full speed this spring and will join rising sophomore Demarco Robinson, redshirt freshman Rashad Cunningham and redshirt freshman Bookie Cobbins in a push for playing time.


“(Collins) is a guy we were excited about before the injury,” Phillips said. “The injury occurred late in camp. He missed a whole season. (He’s) another guy that needs to step it up at the wide receiver position, especially as an inside wide receiver for us.”


Cobbins spent most of his redshirt season as the third-string quarterback before earning some practice reps at receiver late in the year. He’ll make the full-time move to the position this spring.


“The thing we have to do is find out if his knowledge level is going to allow him to play out there,” Phillips said. “I know a lot of times people think it’s easy for a quarterback to go out there that has been in this offense, but it is still tough with all the movement, all the things you see out there. He should know how to run routes, but now he has to learn the techniques of it.”


Wildcats look for next weapon in line of impressive punters


UK has been blessed with strong punters in recent seasons with departed senior Ryan Tydlacka and current Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay before him. Tydlacka and his 43.6 yard punting average, have moved on, so Phillips is looking for what he hopes is the next great Wildcat punter.


Phillips lists rising junior Joe Mansour or redshirt freshman Jay Willmott as the starter on the pre-spring depth chart.


“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had some good punters in here the last I guess you could say eight years with Masthay and the guy that just left,” Phillips said. “We feel good about what we’ve had here. We have to find out who our next guy is.”


If neither Mansour or Willmott impresses enough to secure the job this spring, they will face added competition from signee Landon Foster in the fall.


“We’d love to have him here already, but we don’t,” Phillips said. “There’s plenty of time. Masthay came in here as a true freshman, went through a few growing pains, and at the end of the year he was a good punter for us.


“The thing we have to do with the high school punters that come in here for us is speed their operation up. Coach (Greg) Nord has been working with him. I think that will help him in getting him ready for the season for us.”


KyForward file photos

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