Wildcats Open Seventh Season Under Brooks

By: Jeffrey McMurray, Associated Press
By: Jeffrey McMurray, Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Even after three straight bowl victories, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks says the program has plenty left to prove -- part of the reason the 67-year-old isn't discussing retirement, even with a successor in place.

Although not even the legendary Bear Bryant ended three straight seasons with bowl wins, Brooks says he won't be satisfied -- and his players shouldn't be either -- until the Wildcats regularly contend for the Southeastern Conference championship.

"I know the desire is there in my belly," Brooks said Friday during the team's annual media day. "I don't know whether it's there in theirs. I assume it is, hope it is, but it takes more than desire too. It takes execution."

Three years ago, following a 3-8 season, Brooks opened media day with some self-depreciating humor, asking reporters whether they were surprised he hadn't been fired.

How times have changed.

On Friday, he stepped to the podium, finding there waiting for him his customary soft drink and -- for the first time in seven years -- a glass of ice.

"You know you've arrived when they put your Diet Coke on ice," Brooks joked.

After the team's recent success, Brooks is fully entrenched as the team's coach, although he is mum on how much longer he wants the job with offensive coordinator Joker Phillips already tapped to replace him upon his retirement.

Phillips' designation as coach-in-waiting was in part to provide continuity for would-be recruits, and that's already paid dividends with their most highly touted class yet.

Expectations are high for the Wildcats, and while one of the nation's toughest schedules looms, Brooks says he has been impressed by offseason workouts and believes the players are further along now than they were at this point in last year's Liberty Bowl-winning season.

Part of that assurance is a year of maturity from quarterback Mike Hartline, who got the job by default on media day last year after Brooks' surprising announcement that Curtis Pulley was kicked off the team for violating rules.

Although Hartline has plenty of talent behind him, including veteran backup Will Fidler and two talented freshmen, the junior second-year starter says he has much more confidence following his success in the Liberty Bowl.

"To come into this media day, it's a lot more relaxed atmosphere," Hartline said. "It's easier to answer questions. You know what you want, confident about your team, confident about starting. You feel a lot better."

Hartline's confidence is boosted by sophomore Randall Cobb's full-time move from quarterback to receiver, where Brooks expects he'll be one of the most dynamic playmakers in the SEC -- and possibly the country.

Cobb will still get to throw some passes under the new Wildcat formation the team is trying, but he says he isn't looking back to his quarterback days.

"I always say camp is my favorite part of the season because I don't have to worry about anything else," Cobb said. "I wake up, eat and play football."

While Cobb's transition and some new playmakers give Kentucky several receiving options, and the team returns a deep roster of offensive linemen, the defense must replace seven starters.

The defensive line, which was the unit's biggest strength a year ago, may be the greatest question mark, particularly after end Jeremy Jarmon tested positive for a banned substance, voiding his senior season. Jarmon has since signed with the Washington Redskins.

"We went from the strongest link to the weakest link," defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said.

Should the line hold up, the defense does have plenty of stars, including linebacker Micah Johnson and Trevard Lindley -- two seniors who weighed leaving early for the NFL but decided to stay and try for an unprecedented fourth straight bowl win.

After the last three, Johnson says he couldn't imagine reaching any other decision.

"It's crazy," he said. "They used to say time would fly by, but I can remember everything back to my freshman year. I've really enjoyed it here."

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