LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There were a few times this spring when Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton dropped back to pass and looked for No. 18.
The only problem was that he was usually somewhere on the sideline watching in street clothes.
Randall Cobb, who will be in New York City later this week at the NFL draft waiting for his name to be called, was the ultimate bail-out player the past few seasons for the Wildcats.
You could throw it to him, snap it to him, hand it off to him, and if none of those worked, he could always throw it.
He was the quintessential playmaker.
“Sometimes you just wanted to tell him to jump back in there and run some of those old plays,” Newton joked. “Randall has been great and great for the receivers. It’s tough not having him out there, but we know what the standard is now and have some other guys who can step up and make plays.”
Perhaps so, but one of coach Joker Phillips’ biggest concerns coming out of the spring centered around who those guys would be on a consistent basis.
It wasn’t a stirring end to the spring for the Wildcats’ receivers, although Brian Adams made the most of his time on the football field while also playing baseball.
Sophomore Raymond Sanders emerged as Kentucky’s go-to running back this spring and also showcased his versatility, and Phillips can’t wait to get a look at incoming freshman running backs Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons.
But if you’re looking for the epicenter of Kentucky’s offense next season, look no further than the five guys up front.
The Wildcats return four starters on their offensive line, and two other seniors who’ve played a lot of football for them and are capable of playing different positions.
It’s an offensive line that should be one of the best in the SEC after finishing second in the league a year ago in sacks allowed (19 in 13 games) and paving the way for the Wildcats to finish fourth in total offense.
“That’s always a good place to start, when you think you have a chance to match up with anybody you play up front,” Phillips said. “We’ll lean on those guys a lot next season.”
Senior Chandler Burden returns at left tackle. He wasn’t supposed to do much this spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but returned for the final part of practice. Also back is junior center Matt Smith, who’ll be flanked by one of the better guard tandems in college football.
Junior Larry Warford plays right guard and was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago. Senior Stuart Hines has 24 starts over the past two seasons and will be the Wildcats’ left guard.
Senior Billy Joe Murphy made starts at left tackle, right tackle and left guard last season, but will settle in at right tackle next season. Senior Jake Lanefski also returns and can play center or guard.
“We’re all on the same page with each other and are really starting to learn to play together even more than last year,” said Hines, one of the strongest leaders on the team. “We’re able to communicate well, and even if we don’t get calls made, we’re still able to be on the same page. I know the center is going to still be on his block.
“What that does with our young running backs coming up is hopefully give them confidence to run behind us.”
This will also be offensive line coach Mike Summers’ second year with this group, and Hines points out that Burden was just learning to play offensive line a year ago after moving over from defense.
“We have a solid group of guys who are continuing to learn, and continuity makes a big difference,” Hines said. “At this point last year, we’d only been together for 15 practices and only 15 practices with Coach Summers as well. We hadn’t really come together as a group yet, but now we’re really starting to come together as a unit and know what he expects from us.”
Hines welcomes the offensive burden being on the line’s shoulders next season.
With so many veterans returning, he said that’s the way it should be.
“We’re a group of guys who will take the blame if we have a bad game,” Hines said. “Put it on us. We can take it.
“It’s on us to give everybody a chance to make the kind of plays Randall and Derrick [Locke] did last season, and that’s the way we want it.”