LEXINGTON – Much will be made this week of Joker Phillips’ return to the Commonwealth Stadium sidelines when the 19th-ranked Florida Gators (2-1) meet the Kentucky Wildcats (1-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU.
Phillips, of course, was fired as UK head coach after a 2-10 season a year ago, and then was hired as wide receivers coach at Florida.
But I believe Phillips’ return to the scene of the crime, so to speak, is much ado about nothing. And so does new UK coach Mark Stoops.
“I wouldn’t think that would give any extra motivation for us,” Stoops said Monday when asked about his players’ reaction to Phillips’ return. “I think most people here have good feelings about Coach Phillips and the work he’s done at Kentucky.
“He’s a very good person and a good coach. I don’t think that will have any bearing on the game.”
Stoops appears much more concerned about the overall physicality of the Gators, especially on defense.
“They are overwhelming at times,” Stoops said of the Gators, who are coming off a sloppy (and that’s being oh-so-polite) 31-17 win over Tennessee. “Florida can get in your face and not give you anything easy. They’re very good defensively, maybe as good as anybody we will play this year.
“Their front four is very disruptive. Very dominant up front, and their secondary is fabulous. They cover the heck out of you.”
Stoops, of course, knows Florida well, having coached against the Gators the past three seasons when he was the defensive coordinator at Florida State.
Kentucky’s hopes for an upset Saturday took a blow this past weekend with the season-ending broken leg suffered by Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel in the win over Tennessee.
Backup Tyler Murphy came in for Driskel in the first quarter of the Tennessee game and improved steadily as the game went on.
Murphy offers the same adequate passing Driskel did, but Murphy is much more dangerous as a run threat. He averaged 8.4 yards per carry on 10 rushing attempts against the Vols.
“Certainly Murphy showed some athleticism and some speed, and I’m sure they’ll want to use him from time to time,” Stoops said.
The Wildcats have much to gain Saturday. If they can upset the Gators, it would be a massive confidence booster both for the players, most importantly, and also for the fan base.
It would bring bowl talk back as a long-term potential goal this season, even with battles against SEC heavyweights South Carolina and Alabama coming up the next two weekends.
And it would stop Florida’s win streak over Kentucky at 26. Sadly, most of those 26 games have not been close.
In fact, the Gators have beaten the Wildcats by an average score of 47-7 over the past five years, including 38-0 a year ago.
Stoops doesn’t mind if his players talk about the streak.
“Sure I think it’s motivation,” he said. “I think it needs to be talked about. But it can’t be the focal point. We have to get better each and every day, each and every game. That’s what we’re worried about.
“The last time we stepped on the field, we got better in certain areas. Let’s hope we get better in all areas with this next game.”
UK NOTES: Stoops indicated Monday that quarterback Maxwell Smith and defensive tackle Donte Rumph should play Saturday.
Both have been nursing shoulder injuries that suffered setbacks, so to speak, in the Wildcats’ 27-13 loss to Louisville Sept. 14...
...Freshman Jason Hatcher (6-foot-3, 250-pounds) is listed behind junior Bud Dupree on the UK depth chart at defensive end, but Stoops and staff are coming up with more ways to get Hatcher on the field. Both Hatcher and Dupree may see action at outside linebacker as well as end down the road.
...Freshman wide receiver Ryan Timmons, from Franklin County, will start for the third straight game.