Young talent, occasional success is saving Joker

By BRIAN RICKERD/sports@state-journal.com Published:

LEXINGTON – Coming out of last season’s sluggish 5-7 season, the prevailing opinion of those outside the University of Kentucky seemed to be that Coach Joker Phillips had better get his Wildcats to a bowl in this 2012 campaign – his third season here as head coach – or lose his job.

I’m not so sure now.

Given the immense volume of young but plentiful athleticism on the UK roster, I wonder if 5-7 or 4-8 will be enough to keep Phillips around as long as his players are improving and playing hard.

Traditionally, Kentucky teams – even in the best years – start off reasonably strong and then get beaten up in the Southeastern Conference and fade.

I can say this for sure: That had better not be the case in 2012 if Phillips wants to see a fourth season as the UK head man.

But if Phillips is worried about his future here, he should get an Academy Award for his performance at Friday’s media day where seldom was heard a discouraging word.

“How much fun is this!” Phillips asked the assembled media Friday. “We get to play some football.”

Phillips appears to base his enthusiasm on a couple of areas:

1. A lot of young players on his roster did, in fact, improve a great deal the final two weeks of last season – a close loss at Georgia and the 10-7 miracle over Tennessee.

2. There appear to be a slew of extremely talented and athletic players coming on board this time around who were redshirted a year ago or are true freshmen now.

Depth at quarterback, wide receiver and running back appear to be as deep as I can remember for Kentucky.

And the defensive line looks solid.

The questions are on the offensive line and experience in the defensive rear seven.

First, who will join senior guard Larry Warford and senior center Matt Smith on UK’s offensive line?

“That’s the most important thing,” said sophomore Maxwell Smith, the apparent No. 1 guy at quarterback at the moment. “If Tom Brady had me protecting him, what could he do?”

Kentucky’s linebackers are all new to a starting role, and the secondary took a hit with news Friday that redshirt freshman cornerback Marcus Caffey, a projected star, is academically ineligible and will miss the 2012 season.

Phillips said senior Martavius Neloms will move from safety to corner to compensate.

Phillips declined to take any questions about Caffey, presumably because that would be, well, negative.

“We’re excited to be back here on the field and have an opportunity to compete with this 2012 team,” Phillips said.

Can I interject here and admit that I like Joker Phillips very much? I really do. I mean, you sit in with him and hear him talk about his obvious passion for UK and for football, and it’s very easy to hope that the moon and the stars align just right and bring success to his Wildcats.

And you hope that giving in to the temptation to be excited about this Kentucky football team isn’t akin to being excited about the salmon served at the dining hall the night before the Titanic set sail.

So while I chuckled at what Phillips said next, I mean that affectionately.

“Why are we excited?” Phillips said, saving us all an obvious question.

“That’s usually the first question,” he admitted. “I’m excited because of the leadership that we have on this football team. We have sat down and talked about who we thought are the leaders on this football team, and since January, that list has doubled.

“They’ve shown that throughout our offseason, through spring football and our summer workouts. I’m excited about the dedication this football team has displayed, and I’m excited about the hunger this football team has shown.

“We’ve actually had to change our system and how we get into the football offices (this summer) because there were so many players wanting to watch film on Saturdays and Sunday.

“And we have some very competitive positions that bring excitement to us.”

The most obvious one is at quarterback, of course. Smith came on late last season and showed a lot of promise at the QB spot. Freshman Patrick Towles from Highlands appears to have all the tools to be a star. Senior Morgan Newton appears 90 percent back from a shoulder injury and is reportedly looking very good.

And, as Newton himself points out: “The guy you all are overlooking is another quarterback in Jalen Whitlow, who is just as good and a guy who can really play. He’s really a sharp guy.”

Indeed. Whitlow was rated as high as the 20th best prospect out of the state of Alabama last year and is drawing comparisons to Randall Cobb.

So, let me revise my original question: Will enough of these highly touted athletes show enough this season to appease the restless Kentucky fan base; buy Phillips time, and ease the concerns of recruits like, oh, Ryan Timmons of Franklin County comes to mind...?

Seventy-three of the 105 players listed on the UK roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Phillips said Friday that 26 of his top 44 players right now are either redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

To look even closer, all 11 of the linebackers listed on the Kentucky depth chart are freshmen or sophomores.

Those numbers might work against the likes of Kent State and Western Kentucky - the two opponents that follow the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville - but how will that fly in the seven games that follow - Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Georgia and resurgent Vanderbilt?

Somewhere in that brutal stretch, we’ll know if Phillips’ current apparent enthusiasm is justified.

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