Wildcats' Cobb, other QBs find playing time any way they can
On the play-by-play sheets from University of Kentucky football games, Randall Cobb's name is omnipresent.
There's Cobb returning the kickoff. Then Cobb catching a pass. Cobb making plays any way his coaches can imagine -- throwing, running, catching or returning, darting and shape-shifting his way downfield. And once he's propelled his team to the end zone, Cobb never trots immediately to the sideline.
He still has to hold the extra point.
When he's not performing his day job as the Wildcats' star receiver/quarterback/return specialist, Cobb moonlights as the team's PAT and field-goal holder. It's a role typically reserved for punters and backup quarterbacks, but for Cobb, holding kicks is just another way to get his hands on the football.
"Why not?" said Cobb of his role as a holder.
Of course, this is the same guy who once lobbied coaches to let him play on defense, but for now, Cobb is too busy carrying the Wildcats on offense and special teams. He leads the team in receiving (682 yards), ranks third in rushing (228) and is the Wildcats' leading kick and punt returner. He's also accounted for 51 yards with his arm, completing 4-of-7 passes out of the "WildCobb" formation. Of the Wildcats' 37 touchdowns, Cobb has passed (3), rushed (3), caught (6) or returned (1) a total of 13.
"You can't say enough about the kid," Wildcats quarterback Mike Hartline said. "He's obviously not only a big part of our offense but a big part of our team. Returning punts, returning kicks, being the holder -- he does everything. He makes us look good."
Cobb accounted for 165 total yards in Kentucky's signature win of the season, a 31-28 defeat of then-No. 10 South Carolina. Despite his dominance, the 4-5 Wildcats have been unable to emerge as contenders in the uncharacteristically weak SEC East.
Last Saturday, Cobb caught 12 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown in Kentucky's 24-17 loss at Mississippi State. On Oct. 9, he nearly willed the Wildcats' to a comeback win over BCS title contender Auburn, accounting for 207 yards in a 37-34 loss.
Said Auburn coach Gene Chizik: "I don't think that you can shut Cobb down."
When Cobb was initially recruited out of Alcoa, Tenn., he chose the Wildcats because they offered him the chance to play quarterback.
"In my heart, I wanted to be a quarterback," he said. "It was just something I wanted to do. But I understood that I might not be a QB -- I might be something else."
After beginning his career at wide receiver, Cobb started the final four games of his freshman year in 2008 behind center. He did enough with that opportunity to be named to the SEC's all-freshman team as a quarterback. Cobb finished the season as the only player in the country to be his team's starting quarterback and starting punt returner, but Hartline reclaimed the job for Kentucky's bowl game win over East Carolina.
Since then, Cobb has moved permanently to his hybrid role. His favorite position is lining up in the shotgun for the "WildCobb" formation, where he offers offensive coordinator Randy Sanders a unique luxury.
"He understands the game from the quarterback position, and that allows us to do more than most teams can out of Wildcat packages," Sanders said. "He can make checks and get us in and out of plays. What he's able to do is not just a guessing game. You can game-plan like it's your normal quarterback out there."
Other former QBs have followed Cobb's lead in the SEC.
Georgia junior Logan Gray entered spring practice in a battle with redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger for the starting quarterback job. After Murray won the job -- Mettenberger pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery and was dismissed from the team -- Gray considered transferring before switching to wide receiver.
"I was at a crossroads," said Gray, who, as the backup quarterback, returned punts for Georgia in 2009. "I was looking to get on the field. I considered transferring or switching positions. Coach [Mark] Richt said he wanted me to stay, and it worked out well."
While Gray has spent much of this season mastering the fundamentals of his position -- he has nine catches this season for 105 yards -- he has also given other receivers a window into a quarterback's mind.
"When we're installing a concept in the meeting room or explaining the progression of the quarterback, I'll ask Logan to share his knowledge with the room," Georgia receivers coach Tony Ball said. "You can see that helping. His experience at quarterback helps him, and other players respond to that."
Auburn's Kodi Burns endured a similar transition last year, after he was beaten out by Chris Todd for the starting job. Burns moved to a receiver/Wildcat role, which he's continued this season as junior college transfer and Heisman candidate Cameron Newton has led the Tigers at QB.
In fact, Burns' versatility contributed to one of the signature moments in Newton's Heisman campaign. Saturday against Ole Miss, Burns lined up at quarterback with Newton split out wide, and he then hit the starting QB on a fade route in the back of the end zone.
"He really gives us some flexibility," Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "We can move him around and do some things with that passing element."
Like Gray, Burns changed positions for a chance to get on the field -- "Anything I can do to get more playing time," he said. Though Burns has 142 total yards (42 passing, 6 rushing, 84 receiving) through nine games, he's often been lost in the shuffle among the Tigers' playmakers.
Indeed, for all three quarterbacks-turned-receiver, the most difficult aspect of the new gig has been playing without the ball.
"It's frustrating," Burns said, "because you get used to always having the ball in your hands."
"Running and catching is easy," Gray said. "It's the small details and the fundamentals that are tough -- getting off a jam, knowing your footwork on a route, controlling your hands and feet."
But quarterbacking experience allows the receivers to make life a little easier on their team's new signal-callers.
"He understands what I go through," Hartline said of Cobb. "He understands the decisions I have to make."
Cobb said his experience at quarterback gives him a knack for finding soft spots in zone coverage and clearing out to open up space for other receivers to make plays. Whether he has the ball in his hands or not, Cobb has been willing to take on whatever responsibilities coaches will give him.
And even in his least glamorous role, Cobb has turned a few heads.
"He's as good a holder as I've ever seen," said former Dallas Cowboys scout Gil Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com. "There's not many guys that I've seen in college football -- in fact, I can't remember one -- that get the ball down as quickly and cleanly as he does."
For someone whose play defies typical categorization, Cobb seems to have found at least one position where he's an established all-American.