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UK football still has long road

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By Brad Stephens

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Building a college football program from the ground up is a tedious job.

Putting one together takes vision, drive and an understanding of what you’re getting into. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops possesses all those qualities.

Unfortunately it also takes a whole lot of patience, because things don’t just get better right away.

Stoops has put together a dynamic young staff, inspired the fan base and revitalized UK’s recruiting by going north and getting Ohio’s best prep players. Too bad none of that changes the fact his current team frankly isn’t that talented.

The Wildcats were handled Saturday by Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 35-26, at LP Field in the season opener for both teams. WKU led by 18 at one point in the fourth quarter and the game could’ve been more lopsided had the Hilltoppers not fumbled twice and dropped a potential touchdown catch.

“They controlled us at the line of scrimmage, created some good run plays and good looks,” Stoops said. “We looked out of place… I thought we were very poor.”

UK did little right Saturday. The first look at offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s “Air Raid” attack was underwhelming. Wildcat quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Max Smith combined to go 18-of-28 for 203 yards and one touchdown, but much of that production came late when WKU had the game well in hand.

Whitlow, who emerged from a four-man fall camp race to get the start Saturday, especially struggled throwing the ball. UK had a grand total of 16 passing yards in the first half with Whitlow under center. In the second half he was eventually pulled for Smith, who played well but couldn’t lead the Cats all the way back from a 35-17 deficit.

Much of UK’s struggles over the past few years can be attributed to a lack of a true starting quarterback. The school that produced George Blanda, Tim Couch and Andre Woodson hasn’t had a full-time guy calling the shots since Mike Hartline in 2010. And after the way the Cats’ passing game looked Saturday, Stoops, Brown and Co. still probably doesn’t know who the long-term answer is at that position.

Smith, who went 8-for-13 with 125 yards and one touchdown, will get the start Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium against the Miami University RedHawks (12 p.m., ESPN3). But the job could go back to Whitlow, or maybe even third-stringer Patrick Towles, if Smith struggles.

Simply put, in a system that requires a talented quarterback with full command of the playbook, the Cats have more quarterback questions than answers.

Defensively UK was picked apart by a quarterback, Brandon Doughty, who had never thrown a touchdown pass in a college game before Saturday. Doughty went 27-for-34 for 271 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Give Petrino, coaching his first game at WKU, credit for developing a nice game plan that gave Doughty lots of confidence-building throws.

But you can also chalk up some of that production to a Wildcat secondary that struggled with lots of youngsters in the defensive backfield. Receivers and tight ends ran open all night and UK didn’t have many answers.

Then when it came to running the ball, the Hilltoppers took advantage of a UK defensive line that was, at times, without starting defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble. When Rumph was out with a shoulder injury and Cobble with cramps, the Cats defensive line was pushed around by a good WKU front to the tune of 216 rushing yards.

Stoops, a former defensive coordinator, wasn’t pleased with the all-around defensive performance.

“It was very frustrating the whole game,” he said. “What disappointed me was things that we were in position to stop, had worked and seen the same look and did not play it right. That was very discouraging.”

The poor combination of lackluster offense and bad defense made for a disappointing loss in the season opener to a Sun Belt Conference school. Things won’t get any easier for UK from a scheduling standpoint.

Two weeks from now the Cats play No. 9 Louisville. Then comes the annual Southeastern Conference gauntlet, with No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 10 Florida all on the schedule. Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, all of whom beat UK last year, are also on the docket.

The Cats’ win-loss record could get much worse this year before it gets any better.

But better days are on the way for UK’s program. Recruiting has been stellar. The coaching staff is young and dynamic. The fan base has bought into Stoops and his vision for Wildcat football.

It’s not Stoops’ fault former coach Joker Phillips had some bad recruiting classes, sapping the team of much-needed depth.

Unlike in basketball, where a few big recruits can change a program’s fortune (see 2009-10 UK), it takes two or three groups of 15-20 core players apiece to get to a competitive state in football. Not until 2015 or so will Stoops have a cupboard full of his own, highly-touted players. Until then he has to make do with what Phillips left behind.

Here in a few years, when those recruits have been put through a college weights program, when a quarterback has emerged and when Stoops gets some more head coaching experience under his belt, the Cats will be in position to compete for some New Year’s Day bowl berths.

That day will come, and UK fans have plenty to look forward to on the gridiron in the future. Stoops has created a wise plan, and Wildcat supporters should be smart enough to stay the course.

Unfortunately the program will take plenty of lumps this year to get to that point.

Email Brad at sports@oldhamera.com.