LEXINGTON – Notes and quotes from University of Kentucky football as the Wildcats prepare for their season opener Saturday at Louisville (3:30 p.m. on ABC regional TV)...
Joker Phillips claims he’s relaxed, heading into his first game in his dream job – the head football coach at Kentucky – as his Wildcats prepare to face arguably their biggest rival, the Louisville Cardinals, Saturday at newly-expanded Papa John’s Stadium.
But the 47-year-old Phillips, who grew up in this state and played for UK from 1981-84, admits his emotions might not stay that way.
“My thoughts are similar to the other seasons that I’ve started,” said Phillips, who has been an assistant coach under Rich Brooks in recent years. “But I’m sure maybe Saturday morning I’ll be hugging the toilet somewhere. I don’t know (laughs).
It’s just one of those deals that I’ve been as relaxed as I’ve ever been. But Saturday, who knows?
“The thing that I know that I have to be is have the emotions under control,” he added. “Because there are a lot of decisions throughout the game that you have to make, so you have to have your emotions under control.”
Phillips was offensive coordinator under Brooks for several seasons and drew a lot of mixed reactions from the UK fan base.
In 2007, when Brooks, Phillips and company had their best Wildcat team, the offense was wide open and scored at will against a lot of opponents. The past two years, when Kentucky did not have the quality or depth of offensive firepower it had in ‘07, Phillips was occasionally criticized for being too conservative in his play calling.
Phillips said Monday that the play-calling hat will be shared on several shoulders this time around, with former quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders the lead dog, er, cat.
“Randy will call the plays from the (press) box,” Phillips said. “I’ll listen. We all will have input. I expect (defensive coordinator) Steve Brown to have input on offense, too. He’s got to tell us what’s going on if he sees something.
“We can’t waste any eyes.”
Can Cats attack?
Louisville’s Cardinals also have a much-hyped new head coach in Charlie Strong. Much has been written about the close relationship between Phillips and Strong, who once coached together under Lou Holtz at South Carolina and have been friends for years.
But while Strong is billed as a coach who likes to attack, based on his years as defensive coordinator at Florida, less is certain about Phillips.
Joker was asked to describe his style on Monday.
“I like to attack,” Phillips said. “I did it in 2007. I don’t know if people would classify me as that in 2008 and ‘09. But I want to be aggressive, get the ball down the field. In 2007 our average scoring drive was two minutes. That’s attacking to me. But the last two years we haven’t been able to do that.”
Does Phillips feel the Wildcats are closer to being able to do that in 2010?
“I think we’re closer, I really do,” he said. “I think we’re closer than we were in ‘08 and ‘09. I think the reason why is we’re more experienced at the positions outside, and more experienced at the quarterback position also. Everybody knows how I feel about this offensive line’s ability to protect and run the ball. I think those guys have done an amazing job in knowing where they’re supposed to be and being physical and nasty.”
One would guess based on that comment – and the appearance that Kentucky has more depth than Louisville – that the Wildcats will be conservative in Saturday’s opener. But, not so fast, says junior jack-of-all-trades Randall Cobb of Kentucky, who may not only be the best player at UK but maybe in the country.
“I think our offense will be different for the most part for the fact that we can throw the ball downfield,” said Cobb, who’s expected to see time at wide receiver, quarterback, punt return and kickoff return. “We have guys who have developed at receiver, and we know we can run the ball. So I think we’ll be able to throw the ball to open up the running game. We’ll throw more 30- to 40-yard stuff, some stuff across the middle...a lot of combinations we have put in just to stretch the field.
“I think fans will be surprised,” Cobb added. “It’s so much more developed from the past two seasons.”
Momentum at stake
There is a boatload of incentive for each team to win Saturday, with pride, bragging rights in recruiting, loyalty to the new coaches and simply momentum gained from a win that can carry either team a long way. Still, I don’t believe this game is as critical to the long-term success for this season as it has been in the past when the loser of UK-U of L was pretty much doomed to no postseason bowl.
Why? Because U of L is in the Big East, which shouldn’t be as strong this year as last, and UK’s Southeastern Conference slate, while always formidable, is relatively light. The Kentucky schedule is missing names like Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
Still, Phillips is right when he says a win Saturday is critical to either team’s hopes for a GREAT season.
“If either team is going to have a great year, it’s important to get this one,” Phillips said. “I would say momentum is the biggest thing that can come out of this game. I don’t think either team can have a great year without this because I think we both need the momentum.”
Kentucky follows the opener with sure wins at home against Akron and Western Kentucky, followed by a sure-loss road tilt at Florida. If Louisville pulls the upset Saturday, the Cardinals could start as high as 5-0 and likely no worse than 4-1. The Cardinals’ immediate slate after UK is Eastern Kentucky at home, a likely loss at Oregon State on Sept. 16, a road tilt at Arkansas State and a home game with Memphis.