Wildcats Are Stronger, Faster, but Still Underdogs Beyond the Bluegrass
"It's not that way any more," Brooks said.
He's right, too. Kentucky's preseason practice moves into full pads Tuesday, and Brooks hasn't masked his belief that his team is better than a year ago. While expectations vary greatly around the SEC, Kentucky has never been confused for a football power, or semi-power. It's true the Wildcats have come a long way since Brooks took over and still have a long way to go.
But the Wildcats' confidence suggests they will make it, and the college football world always seems to pull for likeable underdogs.
"I know we're a better team than we were at this stage last year," Brooks said.
"In my mind, I think we are clearly better than we were at this time last year. Having said that, we have to go out on the field and win games, Offensively we're a team that virtually lost all of its production going into last season. This year we return virtually 80-percent of it, probably. The experience that those players gained last year is making them better going into this season. We've added a few new pieces to the puzzle that I am anxious to see how they play out in practice."
An important area where the Wildcats have made noticeable strides is in strength and conditioning. The numbers show significant improvement in overall team speed and quickness, along with gains in strength. In the 40-yard dash last spring, for instance, 27.5 percent of the Wildcats were timed at 4.63 seconds or better, up from 23-percent in 2008. In the squat lift, 30.4 percent of the team topped 500 pounds, up from 29.5 percent last season.
"When I got to Kentucky, the first year we had one player that could run [the 40] under 4.5. Last year we had 17," said Brooks, 32-41 in six seasons.
"We have more speed. We have more talent. We have players that are capable of playing at Florida and Georgia and Tennessee. I think that we've closed the gap on the talent level, which is the biggest significant difference in Kentucky football now versus four or five years ago."
Brooks inherited a Kentucky program in 2002 burdened by the effects of a severe NCAA probation. After three years of patience and tireless recruiting, the Wildcats enjoyed a breakout season in 2006. Their 8-5 record included a win over Georgia and a Music City Bowl victory over heavily favored Clemson, UK's first bowl win in 22 years.
The 2007 season produced another 8-5 mark and a Music City Bowl win over Florida State. The season also featured upsets of No. 9 Louisville and No. 1 LSU, which went on to win the national championship. And, despite heavy graduation losses, the 2008 squad clawed its way to another postseason appearance.
The Wildcats went 7-6, capped by a bowl victory over East Carolina. In the process, Brooks joined Paul "Bear" Bryant as the only two coaches in school history to advance into the postseason in three straight years, and marked the first time that UK won bowl games in three consecutive seasons.
To put it further in perspective, Kentucky is one of just 11 teams to win at least three bowl games in a row, and boasts the second longest non-conference winning streak in the country, including bowls, trailing only LSU. So, it's easy to see why not even the media selecting Kentucky at the bottom of the SEC East at SEC Media Days last month ruined Brooks' mood. He wants his team to be viable.
"I can't say that I've never seen that, because I've seen some of those things. But I don't take anything personally," Brooks said.
"I think we have accomplished some things at Kentucky that I think are fairly significant in Kentucky football history. But in the grand scheme of things, in the SEC, it probably hasn't been that dramatic. I would say that whoever's coaching at Florida or LSU or Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee is almost always going to be ranked ahead of whoever's coaching at Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Whether that's justifiable or not, you know, who cares? I mean, that's just the way it is."
The way it is this year is that Kentucky does have some bright spots.
The offensive line just might be the best in recent seasons. The defense has its share of established playmakers, anchored by All-America candidate Trevard Lindley at corner. Kentucky also has a favorable schedule -- the Wildcats don't play their first road game until Oct. 10, this after welcoming Florida and Alabama to the Bluegrass State.
"I believe we have people lining up on 11 positions on defense that can start at a lot of schools in our league, and I'm talking about a lot of the big name schools," Brooks said. "So I think that this now has a chance to be clearly the best defensive team that I've had."
Bottom line, Kentucky has enough speed, athleticism and talent that players are demanding nothing less than another winning season.
"Changing the nation's perception of the program has been the goal from Day 1," offensive tackle Zipp Duncan said. "People now look at the schedule and see us as a serious threat. We play with confidence, come to come, and fight until the end."
And let's not forget about the 67-year-old Brooks, who doesn't show any signs of slowing down or has a time table to retire, even if offensive coordinator Joker Phillips last year agreed to become the program's head coach-in-waiting.
"I'm a relative youngster compared to a couple of my good friends in coaching, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, but I am still a relatively elder statesman," Brooks said. "I did not want the recruiting efforts of Kentucky to be hurt by the "impending retirement," or old age rumors where there may be a change in philosophy ... we did have a plan, and Joker Phillips is as qualified as anybody in the country to become a Division I head coach.
"I don't have a timetable. I'm not sure. Health is always a concern and an issue. I'm completely healthy. I'm fine. But if I'm not a year from now, I want to have something in place. And it's in place. I'm very encouraged by that."
As are Kentucky football fans.