Key playmakers in Cats' explosive attack returning

After he sparked Kentucky's breakthrough season in 2006, Andre' Woodson's encore will determine how far the Cats can climb.

Updated: March 29, 2007, 1:53 PM ET
By Chris Low | Special to ESPN.com

Andre' Woodson is on the move, and that's nothing new for the Army brat-turned-precision passer.

His mother, Robin, was a career military woman, and they saw the world together as she put in 20 years in the Army. He was born in Fort Lewis, Wash., and they eventually matriculated to Fort Knox, Ky., where she retired and Woodson became a highly sought-after quarterback prospect. In between, they spent time in Germany, Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

Andre' Woodson
Brad Wilder/WireImage.comAndre' Woodson led the SEC with 31 TD passes in 2006.
"It was different, but it teaches you to adapt to all different types of environments," Woodson said. "It can be a lonely feeling, being put in a situation where you're always having to meet new friends. But it was a good experience.

"It definitely helps you grow up."

He's also grown up on the football field, and his ascent last season to the top of the passing charts nationally was one of the key ingredients in Kentucky's dramatic turnaround. The Wildcats finished 8-5 after winning a total of nine games in the previous three seasons, won their first bowl game in 22 years and ensured that head coach Rich Brooks would get a chance to finish what he started. Squarely on the hot seat when the season began, Brooks was rewarded with a new four-year contract in February worth $1 million per year.

"It had been a long road for all of us, but coach Brooks was always there behind us and taking a lot of heat for things he really shouldn't have been blamed for," Woodson said. "The probation made it tough to get players. We just needed the right personnel.

"The main thing is that we believed in him, what he was saying and that we could compete in this conference. We believed it could happen, and it finally did."

Now comes the next (and more difficult) step, which is sustaining that success. Woodson's encore from a terrific junior season will go a long way toward determining just how big a step the Wildcats can take.

If he makes a fraction of the jump he did from his sophomore to junior season, look out.

"What Andre' accomplished last year would have to rate up there among the biggest turnarounds I've seen from one year to the next, and he did it at a position where it's hard to measure that kind of progress in a one-year cycle," said Brooks, whose Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.

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"He had a lot of ability as a sophomore, and granted, we weren't a great team around him. But he let some of the disappointment get to him a little bit. He didn't play, I thought, to his ability level and then really totally revamped his game between the fall of 2005 and fall of 2006. He became more aggressive, more outspoken as a leader, understood coverages better and worked very hard with his ball security, which had been a problem for him."

Woodson's numbers were off the charts last season, especially when you consider that he plays in a league ripe with nasty defenses. The Southeastern Conference has a way of chewing up quarterbacks and spitting them out.

Yet Woodson led the SEC with 3,515 passing yards and 31 touchdowns, while completing 63 percent of his passes. Former No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch is the only other Kentucky quarterback to throw 30 or more touchdown passes in a season, and only three other returning quarterbacks in the country -- Hawaii's Colt Brennan (58), Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (38) and New Mexico State's Chase Holbrook (34) -- threw more touchdown passes last season.

And all three of them attempted at least 140 more passes than Woodson a year ago.

His most impressive statistic, though, and the one that endears him so to Brooks, was that he threw just seven interceptions last season. He heads into the 2007 season with a school-record streak of 162 straight passes without an interception, the ninth longest streak in SEC history.

"He understood where he was throwing the ball and made checks last season as well as any college quarterback I've been around," Brooks said.

Keep in mind this is the same quarterback who exited spring practice a year ago not even assured of a starting job. In fact, many around the Kentucky program thought Curtis Pulley would beat out Woodson, especially after Brooks proclaimed the quarterback race wide open.

So what happened?

It's simple, Woodson said. He became a student of the game and finally discovered the film room.

Keenan Burton
Brad Wilder/WireImage.comKeenan Burton caught 12 TD passes last season.
In reality, he didn't have much choice. His new quarterbacks coach, former Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, all but locked Woodson in the film room and gave him a whole different perspective on how to prepare for games.

"The best thing for me was getting introduced to coach Sanders," Woodson said. "He got me to understand that you had to practice like every practice was a game-type situation. Once my practice ethics improved and I began preparing mentally as well as physically, the other players noticed. We all got on the same page, and I think that's why we got it going."

The best news for the 6-foot-5, 232-pound Woodson is that all of his top playmakers are back. Senior receiver Keenan Burton tied for the SEC lead with 12 touchdown catches last season. Junior receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. wasn't far behind with nine touchdown catches, while senior tight end Jacob Tamme was a first-team All-SEC selection. Throw in multidimensional running back Rafael Little, and Woodson should again have his choice of targets.

The Wildcats still have some holes to fill in the offensive line, and pass protection was a problem a year ago. Woodson was sacked a league-high 36 times.

But he likes what he's seen this offseason across the board, and that includes a much-maligned defense that played its best football down the stretch last season when the Wildcats won five of their last six games.

"It will be different this year because we're not going to surprise anybody," Woodson said. "Teams know how explosive we are offensively. But this offseason has been the best it's been since I've been here. Everybody's in the film room -- receivers, running backs, tight ends -- and everybody's pointing out different things that they see.

"Two years ago, my second year at Kentucky, you would never see guys in the film room -- maybe a couple of guys, but never a group of guys. We're committed to doing the things it takes to be successful in this conference. Once you get a taste of victory and success, it gets contagious.

"We want to show people that Kentucky is the real deal, and I think we all realize now what it takes to make that happen."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.

Chris Low | email

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