JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Football Cats Getting More Respect; Coach Cal Has Impressive Newcomers

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops’ program continues to get more respect in college football.

For the upcoming 2021 season, Athlon Sports is predicting the Wildcats will be respectable, finishing at No. 4 in the SEC East Division, ahead of No. 5 Tennessee, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 7 Vanderbilt.

Interestingly, one of UK’s so-called beatable opponents, Missouri, is ranked ahead of the Cats with a No. 3 spot in the division. If Kentucky, which has eight players on Athlon Sports preseason All-SEC teams, can find its passing attack under new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Liam Coen, it will definitely have the opportunity to move up in the division standings.

Georgia (No. 1) and Florida (No. 2), not surprisingly, are the leading favorites to capture the East Division title.

Speaking of preseason All-SEC teams, UK senior offensive tackle Darian Kinnard was named to the first-team offense, while senior defensive end Josh Paschal was chosen to the second-team defense. And Kentucky’s eight preseason All-SEC selections tied for the third-most with Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Alabama, the nation’s preseason No. 1 pick, and Georgia led with 15 each, while Texas A&M and LSU had nine apiece.

The colorful Athlon Sports preseason college football yearbook, as usual, has numerous entertaining and informative stories that I really enjoyed reading. They include coaches on the hot seat, grading 2020 new coaches, ranking new head coaches for 2021 as well as ranking the 14 SEC coaches. As you’ll find out, the yearbook also likes UK’s Stoops, who is entering his ninth year in Lexington. Another sign of respect for the Wildcat program.

Coming off its five straight bowl trips, Kentucky will kick off its 2021 campaign at home with a Labor Day weekend date with ULM (University of Louisiana Monroe), which went winless with an 0-10 mark last season.

By the way, I’ll have my annual fearless forecast of UK’s game-by-game schedule in August.

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Congratulations to current DePaul athletics director and ex-Kentucky deputy AD DeWayne Peevy who recently received his Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree from UK.

And it was Peevy who tried to lure former UK assistant coach Kenny Payne away from NBA’s New York Knicks for DePaul’s head coaching position this past spring. As it turned out, things didn’t work out for both parties.

Peevy is the seventh current NCAA Division I AD who previously have worked under UK AD Mitch Barnhart. He joins Alabama's Greg Byrne, Mississippi State's John Cohen, Minnesota's Mark Coyle, Oregon's Rob Mullens, Murray State's Kevin Saal and Florida's Scott Stricklin on the Barnhart AD tree.

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Speaking of Payne, who is in his first year as New York assistant, he has four former Wildcats on the roster – Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox II, Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel.

Here’s what Quickley had to say about Payne in a story written by Greg Joyce in the New York Post. “He puts the players first,” said Quickley, the 2020 SEC Player of the Year who played for Payne at UK. “He’ll be there early in the morning, late at night, he’ll take you to lunch, help you with your homework. He’s almost like a father figure. He would be great wherever he’s at, but we are glad and blessed to have him here.”

By the way, Randle, at this writing, was leading the Knicks in scoring and rebounding with around 24 points and 10 rebounds per game.

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Unlike in the past when UK signed mostly freshmen to reload the roster, the basketball Wildcats this time will have several newcomers with significant experience. CJ Fredrick and Sahvir Wheeler (pronounced Sah-veer) are two of them who recently spoke with the news media.

Fredrick, a 6-3 sharpshooting guard who transferred to UK from Iowa, will have another opportunity to shine at Rupp Arena where he once led Covington Catholic High School to 2018 state championship with a 35-4 mark. During that Sweet Sixteen run, Fredrick averaged nearly 28 points in four games while hitting 64 percent from the floor, capturing the MVP honors in the state tournament.

Asked about playing in Rupp Arena again, Fredrick said, “It’s something super special to me. Everybody that plays in the Kentucky state basketball tournament kind of knows that feeling of getting to Rupp and how special that arena is and what it takes to get there. So, I’m excited to do the same thing with this team just come in and help this team do whatever it needs to do to win and create more memories at Rupp Arena.”

Even though the Wildcats didn’t recruit him back then, Fredrick said UK is still a “dream” school.

“Being around the area, I kind of know what it means to play on this team,” said Fredrick, who has scored in double figures 19 times while at Iowa, “I never thought it would happen. I’m just super excited that it did happen. But I knew that I was going to go to a team that needed me, and Coach Cal was actually one of the first people to call me when I entered the (transfer) portal. The minute I talked to him I could feel the genuine need for me to come in and help lead the team and help make shots and help spread the floor. That was something that I really liked and enjoyed talking with him about.”

Meanwhile, the 5-10 Wheeler, who averaged 11.3 points and 5.8 assists in 57 career games at Georgia, loved the idea of being compared to ex-UK All-American and 5-9 guard Tyler Ulis.

“That’s cool with me,” said Wheeler, who was named second team All-SEC while leading the league in assists this past season. ”Tyler Ulis was the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year (in 2016). So, if I’m getting that comparison, I think I’m doing some things right. Obviously, I have to continue to get better to live up to that, but I’m super excited. He was a successful guard in college. He was super successful here at the University of Kentucky and I’m really cool with that. I’m also cool with being the next, the one and only Sahvir Wheeler as well.”

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If you are a fan of MLB’s Cincinnati Reds or Pittsburgh Pirates, or NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, you’ll enjoy one of the two new hardcovers even if you don’t read much.

Remember baseball star Dave Parker who played for the Reds during the latter part of his career? He, along with co-author Dave Jordan, has written a fascinating 447-page volume titled “Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood" (University of Nebraska Press, $34.95).

It's a lengthy autobiography about the seven-time All-Star performer and a two-time batting champion who primarily played for the Pirates and the Reds. Parker, who grew up in Cincinnati, recounts the triumphant victories and the heart-breaking defeats, both on and off the field.

The second book is “Heart and Steel” (Atria Books, $28) by former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher with Michael Holley. Cowher, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who was born and raised just 15 minutes from the old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, takes the readers on his remarkable journey filled with success and heartbreaking moments, including a three-month period in 2010 when he lost his wife and his father.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of five books about UK basketball, including newly-released “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.” He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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