Unless you are in the habit of cheering for Kentucky, this will
come as bad news: The Wildcats' attack--which generated 31.6
points per game and set 51 school records last season--should be
even more explosive this year. That comes from reliable sources.
"There's a lot we can do better," says coach Hal Mumme, who
continually refines his patented aerial assault. His quarterback
agrees. "The more you know, the more points you can put on the
board," says junior Tim Couch, who broke or tied 17 Kentucky
marks in his first year as a starter.
Entering the second season of the Mumme era in Lexington, the
coach-Couch combo looks all the more formidable. A former
Kentucky high school sensation, Couch was not enamored of coach
Bill Curry's option offense and was on the verge of transferring
after his freshman year. Instead, Curry was replaced in December
'96 by Mumme, with whom Couch clicked immediately. Last season
the Wildcats finished 5-6, their best record since 1993, and
beat SEC rival Alabama for the first time since 1922. Better
yet, Commonwealth Stadium crowds averaged a record 59,110, up
more than 18,000 from the year before. With sirens wailing in
the background at home games--"Air Raid" became the team's
slogan--Couch led the nation in passing yards, with 3,884. More
bad news for the opposition: He says his arm has gotten even
stronger in the off-season.
Couch's backup is Mumme's son, Matt, a senior who sat out last
season after following his father from Valdosta State. With the
younger Mumme available--he's been running Hal's offense since
the sixth grade--the coach is considering redshirting sophomore
quarterback Dusty Bonner and two promising freshmen, Chase Harp
and Mike Scipione.
On defense, Kentucky expects a few newcomers to contribute
immediately, including 6'7", 256-pound Dennis Johnson. The
national defensive player of the year, out of Harrodsburg (Ky.)
High, Johnson chose the Wildcats over Notre Dame. He will line
up both at linebacker and on the line to take advantage of his
versatility and to prevent offenses from keying on him.
The defense as a whole will play more aggressively than last
season's unit, which yielded 392.3 yards and an SEC-worst 32.9
points per game. In spring practice the average 40 time for this
fall's projected starters was 4.57, compared with 4.75 by the
starting 11 the year before. Mumme's staff also installed some
new defensive schemes in the spring. "We'll get up and challenge
the receivers more," says sophomore free safety Willie Gary, the
only returning full-time starter in the secondary. Kentucky's
receivers, a talented bunch in their own right, back up Gary's
claim. "All I have to say about our defense is that I'm glad we
don't have to play against it," says senior wideout Craig Yeast,
the top returning pass catcher in the conference (73 receptions).
Junior linebacker Jeff Snedegar, who came to Lexington as a
quarterback, led the team in tackles last year, with 97, despite
playing most of the fall with a torn rotator cuff. "When he gets
in the huddle," defensive coordinator Mike Major says, "he
commands a lot of respect."
The Wildcats hope to command respect all around this season.
Their goal is to ring in 1999 at a bowl game. "It's not out of
our reach," Yeast says. "It's just a matter of which bowl game
we're going to push ourselves to get to." --D.G.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO AIR FORCE 2 Couch shattered records as a sophomore and promises higher marks this year. [Tim Couch in game]
1997 record: 5-6 (2-6, 5th in SEC East)
Final ranking: unranked
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 31.6 32.9
Rushing Yards 108.6 170.8
Passing Yards 365.4 221.5
Total Yards 474.0 392.3
Tim Couch, who finished ninth in the Heisman voting last year,
completed 66.4% of his passes, best in the nation.... Junior
halfback Anthony White set a school record for receptions by a
running back, with 59.... Former strong safety Marlon McCree had
an impressive spring at linebacker, a position he played in high
school. He has bulked up about 25 pounds since last season.
Schedule strength: 47th of 112
Sept. 26 at Florida Contender or pretender? Kentucky has lost
11 straight to Florida and hasn't won in Gainesville since 1979.
Oct. 24 vs. Georgia Like the Wildcats, the Bulldogs (10-2 last
year) will be scrambling for bowl position in the SEC.
The Bottom Line
With Couch at the controls, Kentucky appears headed for a
winning season and its first bowl appearance since '93.