Are better football days ahead?

The following column is part of the 136-page 2012 Cats' Pause Kentucky Football Yearbook. The book is available is available for purchase at ShopCatsPause.com.

Bud Dupree is part of a roster full of young talent that could lead to brighter days for Kentucky football

The question is inevitable. As sure as Carl Nathe's voice will draw out 'Fiiiirst Down Kennnnntucky!!!' each autumn Saturday, every conversation about Kentucky football this offseason included the same query: Are the Wildcats going to be any better in 2012?

The short answer? I don't know. The long answer? The product on the Commonwealth Stadium field this season will be markedly improved but that may not bear itself out in the area fans are most concerned with – wins and losses. If you're interested in seeing an offense that musters more than the 260 yards per game and 21 total touchdowns, you'll get your wish. If your judgment will hinge on the Cats winning seven or eight games, the odds suggest you'll be disappointed.

All of that is fair. But the more pressing question should be whether or not the 2012 Kentucky football team will provide enough hope and tangible evidence to secure Joker Phillips' status as head coach for 2013 and beyond. Why? Because it's relatively easy to see the program is set up for a potential run at a New Year's Day bowl game in 2013 and 2014, when the fruits of improved recruiting and maturing talent converge.

“This staff has done a really good job of consistent recruiting,” Phillips said. “There are 52 freshmen and sophomores in our program, and when you look at the number of guys in that group who can help us that number is a lot larger than when we first took over.

“When we took over there were a lot of guys we felt we made mistakes on. Now, the number of mistakes is way down. The junior and senior classes are small for a reason. They're small because a lot of guys didn't think they could play here, a lot of guys we didn't think could play here. The young classes are bigger because we feel like there have been less mistakes made.”

Phillips' assessment has merit. The Cats' two-deep depth chart has a whopping 26 players who are either redshirt freshmen or sophomores, including nine projected starters. That total does not include highly regarded redshirt freshmen like Bookie Cobbins, Rashad Cunningham and Jabari Johnson, nor does it take into account a freshman class that arrived this summer and is considered one of the program's deepest recruiting hauls.

The 2012 season will be one where guys like Maxwell Smith, Demarco Robinson, Darrian Miller, D.J. Warren, Josh Clemons, Bud Dupree, Marcus Caffey, Ashely Lowery, Glenn Faulkner, Christian Coleman and Josh Forrest see significant playing time. Every one of those names are either a redshirt freshman or sophomore.

“What gives me hope is the way we finished,” Phillips said. “We finished pretty strong in our last two games. As you looked out there there were a lot of young kids out there, a lot of young kids making plays. We've always had good young players, two to three in every class, but there are more of them now and a good-looking class just walked in here. I'm excited about those guys too.

“What's lost in the way we won that (Tennessee) game is how well we played on defense and special teams. The defense was one huge play from tossing a shutout. Look who was playing on defense, it was mostly young guys – Bud Dupree, Eric Dixon, Christian Coleman, Avery Williamson. The way those guys played, that's what gives you hope.”

The problem with Kentucky football is that mere hope is no longer enough to stave off a fan base that tasted just enough success during a five-year bowl run to thirst for more. The same people who six years ago said, 'Just please get to a bowl game and I'll be happy' are now openly seeking SEC East titles. Is that realistic? Who knows. But it's the reality Phillips finds himself facing as he enters his third season at the helm.

There were enough positives in the final two games of the 2011 season to believe Kentucky football can move forward, and can do so in 2012. But will it show up in the Cats' record or be enough for athletics director Mitch Barnhart to continue his historical tendency to show the backbone to stay the course in the face of opposition?

That's the inevitable question that must be answered.

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