LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips has talked about the need for more “explosion plays” for his offense this season after the Wildcats struggled to consistently gain yards and score points during a 5-7 finish in 2011.
But does UK need a go-to receiver, a Randall Cobb- or Derek Abney-type of player that can get open to make a third-down play when everyone knows it is coming?
“You have to have guys on the field that can make a play for you. Teams will double that star guy. They will put corner underneath him, a linebacker shadowing him and then a safety. So you can take away a guy. We have done that. We have to have some second and third options. LaRod King is our most experienced guy, but (freshman) Darryl Collins has to step up and make a play. (Sophomore) DeMarco Robinson has to make a play for us and have the quarterbacks feel comfortable with him.”
Two potential playmakers are freshmen A.J. Legree and DeMarcus Sweat.
“I¿am really excited about them. Listening to (freshman quarterback Patrick) Towles, I am excited. I¿am not going by what I¿have seen because I¿have not seen them (practice on campus). All I have seen is their high school practices, but Towles has seen them here and he’s excited,” Phillips said.
Legree caught 47 passes for 698 yards and 10 scores at Fort White (Fla.) High School as a senior and also returned two of his six interceptions on defense for touchdowns. As a junior, he won the state high jump championship by clearing 6 feet, 10 inches.
Sweat returned three punts and three kickoffs for touchdowns as a senior at Stephenson High School in Stone Mountain, Ga. He has been timed in 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash and was ranked as one of the nation’s top 100 prep receivers last year by ESPN. Three former teammates — Jabari Johnson, Raymond Sanders and Ronnie Shields — are already at UK and freshman defensive back Shawn Blaylock played with him last season.
“We had Sweat on campus. He ran well for us. He caught the ball.¿He has natural ball skills. He was one of those guys ... Dicky Lyons came to campus and nobody said he could play but we saw a guy that ran well and had that swagger we were talking about and caught the ball naturally and we took him. Those were the same things we saw in Sweat,” Phillips said.
Legree was not someone UK recruited early.
“(Offensive line coach) Mike Summers saw him in practice as a junior and really liked him but wasn’t ready to go on him yet because we didn’t know about some of the other guys we had on our (recruiting) board. When we got down to December, Mike said, ‘I got a guy that I think can play.’ He was kind of hesitant about bringing him up,” Phillips said.
“He put him on film and we all looked at him and said, ‘What were you waiting for?’ The guy is a seven-foot high jumper. Runs well. Leaps over guys to make plays. That’s the thing. Production is really key when you look at wide receiver and we think he can really be productive.”
Phillips thinks both 6-1 receivers have a chance to make an impact this season if they grasp the offense quickly once preseason practice starts Friday.
“These two guys look and walk like players. You have to have swagger at that position,” Phillips said. “One reason when I became (offensive) coordinator that I did not take over quarterbacks was I wanted to handle the receivers. It is the receiver group that changes the attitudes of teams and programs. We have guys that have swagger and attitude.
“To me, it is important that the receivers are the heartbeat of the program. If they are not blocking, you are not going to make huge plays. If they are not catching, there are no huge plays. I tell receivers, if we have huge plays it is because of something they have done. It is important for our receivers to think for a big play to happen, they have got to be involved. We need that group to be the heartbeat of our program.
“They don’t necessarily have to be team leaders, but they have got to have great attitudes. Take a guy like (former UK receiver) Keenan Burton. When he was coming out, (NFL) scouts would ask me what did I think. I would say, ‘He may not be a physical guy, but he can block that guy because the coach told him to.’ That is what our receivers have to be able to do. They’ve got to give it up for the good of the team and I¿think these two freshman can and will do that.”