Today is January first 2012 and if you’re like me, the absence of any college football bowls is probably driving you crazy. Fear not though, as I have made it my sole purpose of the day to: 1) Recover from last night and 2) give anyone searching a fix on UK related college football reading.
The conclusion of the 2011 season came and went and the final product left many UK fans wanting. On Thursday, I highlighted the top five players that will need to step up during spring practice, and today I’m highlighting my top “Break Out” performer at each position group. While some of the players listed are unproven freshman that still have a thousand question marks floating around them, others are veterans that have yet to make an impact in their time in Lexington. Not everyone listed will make the leap from role player to stud, but I think at least a couple have what it takes.
*Note: Year listed is in reference to 2012 playing season; (RS) is next to players that have already been redshirted.*
#7 – Bookie Cobbins – FR(RS) – 6’0 / 187 – New Orleans, LA
While it will be tough for Cobbins to beat out Maxwell Smith or Morgan Newton for the starting job, he is a versatile athlete that can beat defenses in a variety of ways. It’s way too early in his career to be making any Randall Cobb comparisons, but Cobbins has the same swagger and athleticism that made Cobb so great. He may be in the wildcat, he may be at receiver, and he could even be played at defensive back, but Cobbins being on the field and making plays from somewhere is a pretty safe bet.
#29 – Brandon Gainer – SO(RS) – 5’11 / 199 – Miami, FL
Some folks have given up on Gainer and some expect him to transfer before the start of next season. I just can’t bring myself to it yet. Gainer has as much physical talent as anyone on the Kentucky roster and a combination of a late start as a freshman (after the NCAA clearinghouse didn’t give him the nod until the last minute), a laundry list of injuries that have limited practice time and production, and some fumble issues last spring have hindered him thus far. With injuries hobbling three of Kentucky’s top backs this past season, Gainer could get his chance to shine this spring.
#23 – Daryl Collins – FR(RS) 5’11 / 203 – Gadsden, AL
Perhaps no freshman was more anticipated than Collins. Even though Darrian Miller, Zach West, and Glenn Faulkner were all rated higher by various sites, no player in Kentucky’s class had the list of scholarship offers that Collins had. Early reports out of camp were promising, but a late injury led to him being redshirted before the season started. After a less than inspiring performance by Kentucky’s receivers in 2011, Collins will be one of the top contenders to come in and make an impact early in the season. While it will be tough to beat out some of the older players, the chances for Collins to come out of the spring with a starting job look very good.
#89 – Tyler Robinson – JR – 6’3 / 252 – Friendsville, TN
The tight end position seems to be a sore subject for Kentucky fans every year. Since Jacob Tamme graduated, the production seen from the tight ends has dwindled to the point that the position is largely an afterthought in the offense. To his credit, Robinson has seen plenty of time on the field and actually outplayed four-star recruit Alex Smith last year on his way to extended playing time as a true freshman. Now going into his third year with the team, Robinson will need to have a great spring to separate himself from fellow juniors Anthony Kendrick and Jordan Aumiller. The reality of the situation is that Robinson is the team’s most capable blocking tight end and what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for with sure hands and consistent effort. While he’s far from a lock to win the starting job, his ability to do a little bit of everything makes him a great candidate to have a big year.
#77 – Darrian Miller – SO – 6’6 / 290 – Lexington, KY
There was no easier player to put on this list after Miller’s performances filling in for an injured Billy Joe Murphy this season. The general consensus was that Miller needed a year to redshirt and get stronger for SEC play, but he was able to come in and lock down the primary backup job at tackle as a true freshman. After an offseason strength and conditioning program that will only help him improve, Miller is just about a lock to start at one of the two vacant tackle jobs. Players with his athleticism and size on the offensive line are essential to winning in the SEC.
#79 – Kevin Mitchell – JR(RS) – 6’6 / 296 – Winston, GA
It’s been a long time since Mitchell initially enrolled at UK and he’s probably been forgotten by a lot of the fan base. It’s not that Mitchell doesn’t have talent or potential though. Stalwarts at tackle and guard have relegated Mitchell to a backup role through his first three years in Lexington and only now has he really had the opportunity to step in and claim a starting job. Now that Sturat Hines, Chandler Burden, Billy Joe Murphy and Jake Lanefski have graduated and Larry Warford is mulling going pro, the opportunity for Mitchell to get some playing time has never been better. He could be plugged in at either guard or tackle at this point but is probably the favorite to take over for Stuart Hines at the left guard position. Regardless of where he makes an impact, time is becoming short as the Cats continue to add talented freshmen to the roster in each recruiting class.
#56 – Sam Simpson – JR(RS) – 6’4 / 292 – Lexington, KY
It’s relatively easy to pick a breakout player at center. Starter Matt Smith has been one of the most consistent players on the offensive line throughout his career in Lexington and the only other player listed as a center is Sam Simpson. There is extensive speculation that freshman Zach West will eventually be moved to center, but for the time being, he’s listed as a second string guard. Simpson came to UK considered a top-10 center nationally but has struggled to get on the field in his first three seasons. Injuries and talent ahead of him on the depth chart have hindered his playing time, but as long as he doesn’t transfer or give up football altogether, I think he could be a big player for the Cats. With limited experience along the offensive line and a projected starter that spent a good portion of 2011 injured, Simpson still has a chance to work his way onto the field even if it’s at guard.
#97 – Mister Cobble – JR(RS) – 6’0 / 332 – Louisville, KY
Even though he started for much of 2011, Cobble still has a chance to become a breakout player in the coming year. How can a starter “break out” you ask? The answer is by going from a role player to a dominant force on the defense. Cobble has the size to be a stud nose guard, but it’s the way that he uses his leverage that gives him the potential to be so lethal. As a former wrestler, he knows how to position his body and his relatively low center of gravity makes him a beast to block. After redshirting in 2009 and sitting out 2010 due to academics, he will only be going into his second year of actually playing and could very well be the nose guard that Rick Minter needs to transition to a more traditional 3-4 set.
#91 – Farrington Huguenin – FR(RS) – 6’4 / 238 – Columbia, SC
It’s not entirely clear how exactly Huguenin will be used at Kentucky at this point. On one hand, he has the type of frame that could eventually make him a monster of a defensive tackle or jumbo defensive end. On the other hand though, Huguenin has enough speed to play the hybrid position manned by Ridge Wilson this season and could be a bookend on the defense if Kentucky eventually makes the move to a 3-4 defense full-time. Regardless, he’s a dynamic athlete that can do so many things well, that he’s a good bet to make an impact on defense. It will be tough for him to break out of the logjam at both defensive end and the hybrid DE/OLB positions. Don’t forget though, that he is actually two years removed from high school and has had the advantage of a year of prep school over the other redshirted players and true freshmen.
#2 – Alvin Dupree – SO – 6’4 / 229 – Irwinton, GA
Only Darrian Miller was an easier pick for this list than Dupree. After starting out with the tight ends, he was moved to the defense where he shot up the depth chart to the #2 spot behind Ridge Wilson. There’s some speculation that he may be moved to another position during the offseason to get him on the field more, but for the time being I’m keeping him at outside linebacker. Anyway, Dupree did have some lapses at times (as you would expect a true freshman to have) last season. More importantly though, he proved he was ready to play on the big stage and was able to consistently contribute against top-tier competition albeit usually in relief of Wilson. Heading into 2012, he’s as sure of a bet as you will find to make plays for the Wildcats regardless of where he lines up.
#54 – Malcolm McDuffen – SO(RS) – 6’3 / 217 – Hopkinsville, KY
The loss of Danny Trevathan will be as hard to overcome as any defensive player the Cats have lost in the last two decades. As a freshman, Danny was an excellent special teams player and as a sophomore, took over the weak-side linebacker position. While Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell were getting most of the publicity, Danny continued his stellar play throughout the season and that continued to carry over into 2010 and 2011 when he became a force to be reckoned with for opposing offenses. McDuffen appears to be the heir apparent for Trevathan and was very good on special teams this past year and in relief of Trevathan on defense. The task will be tall, but McDuffen has drawn endless praise from the coaching staff and the decision not to offer some of the JUCO linebackers they were after is telling. The expectations for McDuffen are high, but he has the talent to live up to them.
#38 – Eric Simmons – SO(RS) – 6’0 / 189 – Atlanta, GA
In the 2010 recruiting class, Jerrel Priester and Dale Trimble were generally thought to be the gems at cornerback. Even though scou.com and rivals.com both rated Simmons as a two-star prospect, ESPN actually rated Simmons as the #25 cornerback in the country and had high praises for him and his potential. Now that Trimble and Priester have both left the program and Anthony Mosley and Randall Burden have graduated, there is a gaping hole at corner for this team. Simmons has the size and speed to lock down the oppositions receivers and will probably get the opportunity to start this season.
#18 – Glenn Faulkner – SO – 6’2 / 194 – East St. Louis, IL
Kentucky doesn’t get many Army All-Americans so when the Cats snag one; you have to expect big things from them. Faulkner was cleared to play at the very last second this past season and other players in his recruiting class got a leg up on him during camp. Now that the season has passed, Faulkner’s natural talent should catapult him up the depth chart at one of the two safety positions and even if he cannot supplant either of the returning senior-to-be starters, he should be at #2 on the depth chart at the worst. Considering how poorly the defensive backs played at times this year, Faulkner should have little trouble making some noise this spring.