LEXINGTON – University of Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips will talk until he’s blue in the face about how frustrating it can be to wait for a college football player to mature.
“They don’t always grow up as fast as you’d like them to,” Phillips said here Friday at the Wildcats’ media day.
Phillips wasn’t talking specifically about wide receiver E.J. Fields, but he could have been.
“It’s just maturity, really,” said Fields, a fifth-year senior, when asked how he has improved through four long years here - a playing career marred by injury his first two years and by inconsistency since.
“I don’t feel any nerves or questions about whether I can do this or I can do that,” said Fields, a Frankfort High grad. “It’s a certainty. I know what I know and what I can do, and now it’s time to produce on the field.
“There isn’t a lot I can’t do, really. The way I see it now – the way I have been thinking about it all summer – is nobody can stop me or block my path but me.”
Much earlier in his UK career, Fields admits he didn’t always study the playbook or work as hard at his craft as he should have.
“But I’ve learned that you have to put in the work if you are going to be a really good player,” he said. “The extra stuff is mandatory if you want to be great.”
Fields is coming off a 2011-12 school year that was a prototype of the kind of ups and downs that have marked his time at UK.
The high point was a week three game against Louisville when Fields caught seven passes, earning a start and game-captain role the following week against Florida.
But after week four, Fields’ playing time at wideout faded. He finished the season with 10 receptions; though he remained a prominent cog on special teams – the latter an area he’s excelled in through his playing career here.
The spring game was typical of his frustration. Fields made a couple of superb catches in the game, but also dropped at least a couple passes he normally could catch in his sleep.
“Inconsistency, that’s exactly it,” says UK’s new wide receivers coach Pat Washington, referring to Fields. “That’s been his career here at Kentucky from what I understand.”
“That was very, very frustrating,” Fields said of the spring game. “Especially when you see the green (end zone) and see what you can do, see the touchdown – see all of it – and it’s frustrating.
“But that has been one of the problems in the past, holding me back, is getting frustrated and letting things get to my head and losing confidence in myself when I knew I should just brush it off and continue playing like I can play.”
But Fields talks now like a guy who has indeed grown up. The fact that he has persevered – that he is still here – speaks to that.
Fields said he has worked very hard all summer to prepare for what appears to be his last go-around as a football player.
“Football-wise, I’ve been working on technique and mechanics, studying the playbook and watching film,” Fields said. “And just catching the ball in tough situations ... distraction catches. Because those are the catches you are going to have to make in a game. You are never really going to get the perfect pass, but it’s up to the receiver to make the play.”
Fields says he firmly believes that the UK coaches have not given up on him.
“I believe the coaches definitely still have me in the picture,” Fields says. “They have faith in me. They know my ability and know I can play, so I don’t feel the coaches losing any confidence in me is a problem at all.”
And he shouldn’t, says Washington, who took over as coach of the UK wideouts this past winter after Tee Martin left to join Lane Kiffin’s staff at Southern California.
“For me it’s a clean slate,” Washington said when asked about Fields’ chances to be firmly in the mix at wideout this season. “E.J. has experience and knowledge of the offense, so his opportunity will be as good as anybody else.
“He is probably, if not the fastest guy on the team, one of the fastest. So he’s a guy who can run, who can blow the top off of coverages and create big plays for us down the field. He’s had a great summer, and he’s made his mind up to do those type of things for this team this year.
“He just has to be consistent.”
Fields is also excited to be just 11 hours short of the credits needed to earn his degree at UK. He’s majoring in education, with short-term sights on coaching and teaching and long-term sights on administration (athletics director, principal, etc.).
“I’m very, very, very proud of myself to get my college degree,” Fields said, when asked about his accomplishments here. “It hasn’t been an easy road. I probably have enough hours to have two degrees, but I switched my major so many times, trying to figure out what is exactly right for me.
“And I’m definitely proud of myself as far as fighting through injuries and coming back from them,” he said of the football side of things. “I get a lot of respect from my teammates and my coaches.
“I’m focusing ahead to graduating and also going out with a bang in football. I believe we’re going to be a really good team this year in spite of all the bad press, and I feel like I have a chance to make some really good contributions to the team.
“There are a lot of open doors for me.”