After trudging through a season of inconsistency and anguish, Kentucky offensive lineman Larry Warford found hope on his final day in pads last fall.
It didn’t come in a bowl victory, although you might not have known that by the jubilant celebration held by the Wildcat faithful on Nov. 26.
No, it came in the form of a regular-season win that didn’t feel regular at all, as the Wildcats ended a 26-game skid to archrival Tennessee with a 10-7 win in front of their home crowd.
The Wildcats added just a fifth win to their record, but they made history, while knocking the Vols out of bowl contention.
For Warford, it sent a message throughout the team that things could get better. It was used as a motivational tool for the offseason and Warford said he was ready to get back out on the field with his teammates almost immediately after Kentucky’s monumental win.
“After that Tennessee game, man, I couldn’t wait,” Warford said.
“We didn’t have the best season or the season we were hoping for, but after that win everybody’s spirits rose up drastically because throughout the season, before that game, we were getting beaten down, momentum-wise.”
Now, Warford and his teammates are hoping that signature win acts as a launching pad. According to Warford, it has so far as players entered offseason workouts with improved attitudes. The youngsters who struggled through their first season at Kentucky looked refreshed and energized. Players hit drills harder and pushed longer.
While the coaches have tried to downplay the Tennessee victory, players still talk about it. They relish in the win because it stands for something and it continues to motivate the players to do more for the future.
“The Tennessee win was great for us and it did help us out a lot,” Warford said, “but we definitely want to have a better season than what we did.”
To do that, Warford said the chemistry has to improve from where it was last season, when the Wildcats’ offense stumbled around, ranking last in the SEC and 118th nationally. Kentucky averaged a minuscule 4.1 yards per play and 14 first downs a game.
To say that Kentucky’s offensive game floundered in 2011 is an understatement.
Warford didn’t point to the injuries or the loss of playmakers from the 2010 team as excuses. He said Kentucky’s struggles were internal. There wasn’t as much comraderie as past teams had. The locker room was a mess and it translated to the play on the field.
The little mistakes that ruin drives were apparent on “just about every play,” Warford said, and it killed the Wildcats’ chances of harnessing any sort of momentum.
But Warford sees changes. Players are being held more accountable and trust is building. The underclassmen are buying in and are picking up plays. Things are starting to get a little easier for them, and that’s encouraging.
“They really will progress into SEC players,” he said.
It won’t be an easy spring for the Wildcats. Kentucky enters down three starters on the offensive line, stud running back Josh Clemons (knee) is limited, quarterback Morgan Newton isn’t doing much as he rehabs frpm shoulder surgery and Kentucky is still looking for playmakers at wide receiver.
It’s still an uphill battle, but Warford is making the effort to put as much of this team on his back as possible. This is the last season, so he wants to go out the right way.
Kentucky’s old man, who went from scared and nervous when he debuted as a freshman in 2009 to an outspoken leader, wants to enjoy what little time he has remaining by helping this program get back on track.
“I’m trying to embrace it,” Warford said of his final year at Kentucky. “I only get four years of this and this is the last one. I’m trying to take it all in and enjoy it while I’m here. It’s not going to last forever, so while I’m here I’m going to make the best of it.”
Making the best of it would include getting Kentucky back to the postseason. Kentucky's five-year bowl streak was snapped last season and that really hit home for Warford because it was new territory for him. He was accustomed to the postseason and he felt as if the coaches and past players who helped rejuvenate Kentucky were let down.
Warford wants to make amends this fall.
“I want this program to succeed,” he said. “Nobody deserves anything, but I feel like with the effort that this team gives … we should be a better program than we are right now.”