February 2, 2012

2012 class includes return possibilities, punter

There were plenty of problems to be found with last year's 5-7 Kentucky Wildcats, not the least of which was a lack of production in the return game.

UK ranked 119th of 120 teams in the country in punt return average and 86th in kick return average. Even with those paltry numbers, the Cats lose their top punt and kick returners from a year ago - Randall Burden and Mychal Bailey, respectively.

So there will have to be someone new in 2012. That could even include a true freshman.

"Someone out of this class, we're going to give a very strong look to see if they can be a guy because that's certainly an area we have to get a whole lot better in," special teams coordinator Greg Nord said.

He's not short on possibilities.

Wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat returned three punts and three kicks for touchdowns as a senior at Stephenson (Georgia) High School. His big-play ability should give him a shot at the job.

"He's doing it against very quality high school competition," Nord said. "He's going to get here early and get an opportunity to be one of our returners."

A handful of defensive backs - Kentucky signed nine - could also have a shot at the job. UK head coach Joker Phillips said the staff discussed returning kicks and punts with Cody Quinn and Jonathan Reed.

"They need to be dynamic returners," Phillips said.

Nord mentioned running back Dyshawn Mobley as a player who could see some action in the return game as well as quarterback/athlete Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, doesn't have prototypical size for a returner, but drew comparisons to former Wildcats Randall Cobb from the coaches on signing day.

Unlike most coaching staffs, Nord said, Kentucky evaluates each prospect with every coach in the room. When Nord wasn't evaluating tight ends, he was looking at the potential to use every other signee on special teams.

"I've looked at all of them and seen touchdowns by many of them in the return game," he said.

He's also been able to look for gunners, kick coverage specialists and other players who could make an early impact on special teams.

Nord also signed a punter who could replace the departed Ryan Tydlacka, who was one of the Wildcats' most impressive players a year ago. Landon Foster

"We feel like we needed to replace Tydlacka, but we weren't going to replace him to make sure we had a guy," Nord said. "If we felt like we could get a guy that was a quality punter that could come in and compete for the job, then we wanted to do that and we felt like he could do that."

Foster attended UK's camp, where the staff was able to evaluate him more thoroughly. Attending camp is important, Nord said, because kickers and punters can be difficult to scout through film alone.

Accounting for slight variations in weather is difficult to do on film. Just as important, the hang time, trajectory and velocity of a punter can really only be gauged in person.

"The ball has to sound different," Phillips said. "You know an SEC punter when you hear him … This guy is an SEC punter, high character kid, intelligent, right look in his eyes, room lights up when he comes in."

The final straw came when Foster attended a camp where former UK standout and current Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay saw him perform. Masthay, who spent time in the offseason working with Tydlacka, was impressed.

"Not only our evaluation was accurate, but a guy who has a Super Bowl ring was saying the same thing," Nord said.

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