After two straight losing seasons, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips knows there are a lot of “negative vibes” about the UK football program.
“It is hard to ignore. It’s okay for our players to acknowledge the negative vibes are out there and they get that but are working to correct that,” said Phillips. “I think this football team gets what we have to do.
“I have been part of this program a long time. A few years ago, people were ecstatic. Now over the last 10 years and what we have got the program to, people want more. We were part of getting the program to that level and we understand how to get it back to that level. A lot of it has to do with recruiting. We have consistency in recruiting now. We have put together pretty good classes.
“You are starting to see our quarterbacks play better and give us an opportunity to win. Not until we developed Andre Woodson at quarterback did we win a lot of games. You have got to develop that position. It’s huge in college football, and even pro football. It starts with confidence and our team is starting to be real confident in our quarterbacks, including Morgan (Newton) who did not practice this spring.”
Newton missed spring practice rehabbing a shoulder injury while sophomore Maxwell Smith took the reps at No. 1 quarterback. The Wildcats will also add Highlands quarterback Patrick Towles to the mix in preseason camp.
However, Phillips is even more certain UK’s team chemistry could be a plus this season as the Cats try to get back to a bowl game that they missed last year despite ending the season with a victory over Tennessee.
“We have a good locker room. Back in 2007 we had a good locker room and good leadership and we haven’t had that since 2007 in my opinion,” Phillips said.
That’s a bold statement since Phillips and his predecessor, Rich Brooks, never have noted that UK¿had chemistry issues after the departures of players like Woodson, Wesley Woodyard,¿Jacob Tamme,¿Keenan Burton, Rafael Little and others.
“Jacob, Rafael, Wesley. Those guys could snatch people up and tell them that is not how we do things around here,”¿Phillips said.
Phillips thinks sophomore linebacker Alvin “Bud” Dupree could be the start of changing that attitude and a player that “could snatch people up” and lead them the right way.
He took both Dupree and running back Josh Clemons, who have both been at UK¿only one season, to a breakfast last month with captains of former UK¿teams. He says he could also have taken Smith, another young player, because of his intangible leadership qualities.
“We have not taken freshmen with us since Wes (Woodyard) and Randall (Cobb). That’s how much I¿think of those guys. Max Smith could have been with us, but he needed to be in meetings. (Offensive guard) Darrian Miller could have been one,” Phillips said. “Before, there were not a lot of young guys we could have taken.
“Our locker room is really good and a lot of it has to do with the enthusiasm of our young players. Bud Dupree is like Wes. We have not had a guy like him since Wes, who changed the attitude of the whole program. Bud could do that, too, and that helps your team more than you can ever explain.”
Phillips says he also learned one important lesson last year when the Cats finished 5-7.
“We have to make sure we get all the young freshmen in the right positions as quickly as possible,” Phillips said. “That was one of our big concerns going into spring ball and will be again in August. We have to make sure we have these new freshmen in the right spots right away so we can develop depth and competition.
“Last year we had to find out what position to use Dupree in a hurry, and we changed him from tight end to linebacker. We didn’t make a decision with (Marcus) Caffey because we promised him a chance to play running back but after the season he came to use and felt the move to cornerback was right for him, and it was,” Phillips said.
“As we look back, we probably should have played a few more freshmen last year. Caffey could have been a tailback and return guy. If Daryl Collins had not gotten injured, he would have played. If we had made the move (from receiver to linebacker) sooner with Josh Forrest, he could have played. It’s important every year to find the right position for guys coming in to develop depth and competition and we have to make those decisions quicker and then not be afraid to play those guys.”