Make no mistake of what I’m about to reveal to you, my loyal readers. When Joker Phillips stepped up to the podium underneath the bowels of his precious Commonwealth Stadium to begin his third season as head coach of his beloved Kentucky Wildcats, he was as excited, animated and confident as I’ve ever seen him during his football career as a player, assistant coach, coordinator and now head coach.
I was sitting there with the rest of the state media contingent, thinking how can he be so enthused and confident about his team and his own personal dilemma with many of his fan base?
Was it all a schemed up ploy for the media to pick up on and sell to those disgruntled fans of Big Blue Nation? The longer it went, the more I bought into it, and I’ve seen 44 years of UK football as an adult and experienced many of these opening remarks from around nine or 10 different coaches.
Then it hit me – there is nothing more intoxicating and many times intriguing than being around today’s youth, especially the 18 to 22-year-old age group. Sometimes they’re a little cantankerous and will at times try to swallow an elephant, then turn around an hour later and choke on a gnat, as the old saying goes, but they’re never without confidence and enthusiasm. Plus they can forgive and forget, especially forget any negative past they may have experienced.
Last Friday at UK’s annual football media days, it was absolutely refreshing to be talking to and in general simply experiencing the college football player’s life through the interview process.
After one day of interviews and general analysis of the team, as well as the eye test after another winter and summer off season training program, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kentucky football program is in much better shape than what may be the perception of the Fellowship of the Miserable Club who have dominated the social and electronic media scene since last November.
I’m not saying this program is ready to go from 5-7 to 8-4, or dare I say 9-3 in 2012. What I am saying is this football team has more SEC type bodies across the roster than I’ve seen in several years, but they are all just starting to grow and mature into their bodies as well as mature mentally and emotionally. When I looked into their eyes I saw enthusiasm and a will to win like I’ve never seen before in the same setting with the same team, albeit with a few newcomers just brought into the program.
But most impressively I saw a group of football players and coaches who are really looking forward to proving their worth in the future. I hope they get the chance to do it together.
Part 2 - The Defensive Backfield
I sometimes get a little critical of my brethren in the media, especially print media, although still after seven and a half years of writing this column and performing various other media responsibilities I still have a hard time considering myself an actual media person. But I’ll plow on and hopefully keep a friendship with a select few of them.
It has been about 24 hours since UK’s media festivities finished up, and I’ve returned home to begin this week’s column for release and all I’ve read and heard is how much of a bad blow it was to this year’s UK defense to lose sophomore DB Marcus Caffey.
Please, spare me this bit of drama. The guy has never played a snap at DB and wasn’t recruited as a DB and just spent two full years of playing football in front of his entire coaching staff’s eyes as a RB. If he is so special to this year’s defense, why is he just now starting his career at the position?
Free & Strong Safety
Let’s begin with the UK safeties, who are very green and untested but may be the most talented and biggest surprise of the 2012 season. Now that Joker Phillips has announced that Martavious Neolms has been moved back to corner, it opens up more time for two prized recruits a year ago in young pups like Ashley Lowery and Glenn Faulkner.
Mikie Benton, a 5’ 11” 195 lb. senior, and Ashley Lowery, a 6’ 1” 205 lb. sophomore, are listed as first and second team respectively at one safety position, while Faulkner, a 6’ 2” 185 lb. sophomore, and Dakotah Tyler, a 5’ 11” 205 lb. junior, are listed at first and second string on the other side at safety.
Benton came in as an in-state freshman walk on but has learned the trade well, according to the coaching staff, and has the utmost respect from everyone in camp. Tyler the lone junior in the backfield and one of the most athletic players on the UK roster, had a spell that put him in the coaching staff’s dog house not long ago and cost him some PT, but he is back in good graces and reportedly ready to upgrade his position with solid SEC type play. Faulkner and Lowery are set to showcase their skills that made them high profile recruits just two years ago.
Incoming freshman Josh Harris of Mason County and Sterling Wright of Miami will be pushing all these guys for reps in fall camp, and may get on the field at some point if injuries occur. But most of the incoming freshman are set to be red shirted if at all possible, according to the defensive coaches.
Martavious Neolms, a 6’ 1” 186 lb. senior, will start out as the shutdown corner since his experience is at a premium with this year’s corner back crew, and he will be backed up by sophomore Eric Simmons, who has been put through the wars of Alabama high school football in recent years, plus one year of nickel back duty as a freshman at UK last year to fall back on early in 2012.
Cartier Rice, a 5’ 10” 185 lb. senior, will hold down the corner opposite Neolms, at least starting out in fall camp, and will be backed up by Eric Dixon, a promising 5’ 11” 185 lb. true sophomore who came to UK with high accolades.
Incoming freshman Cody Quinn of Middletown, Ohio and Jonathan Reed of Indianapolis could and should make a significant contribution to the cornerback position, as well as two of the Blaylocks from Georgia. Shawn Blaylock is out due to season ending knee surgery to be performed on August 7. Zack Blaylock could push for playing time at either corner or safety position. Quinn and Reed both bring outstanding speed to the DB position, but they must go through the wars and process of physical maturation for a year or two before they will be more consistent.
Final analysis, in my astute opinion, is that there is some talent, athleticism and speed in this group, especially in the freshman and sophomore class, but there is nothing like the experience of going through trial and error for this position. The elder statesmen, Neolms and Rice, have game experience, but it’s severely tainted with poor performances on several occasions, which if it continues, could put some of those talented freshman and sophomores on the field.
What could be an asset to this year’s defensive backfield that hasn’t been there many times in the past is a quality pass rush from the Wildcat DL and added pressure from those hybrid linebackers that can make defensive coordinator Rick Minters blitz packages very challenging on the passing game at times.
With the situation this coaching staff is presently in, I can see them throwing the kitchen sink and anything else they can get their hands on, especially early in the season to try and turn a negative into a positive.