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August 3, 2012
Joker Phillips fighting for job in third season
Early on Friday morning, over 100 players reported for the opening of fall football camp. They'll take the official team picture later this morning before taking turns speaking to reporters at media day, which begins at 10 a.m.
With practice just around the corner, Cats Illustrated takes a look at five key storylines entering the 2012 season. This story ran previously as part of a series highlighting every SEC team before fall camp opened.
Years like 2011 were supposed to be a thing of the past for the Kentucky football program. After spending decades mired in mediocrity - or worse - the Wildcats appeared to have turned a corner not too long ago. Rich Brooks retired after the 2009 season, handing the reins to Joker Phillips, a head-coach-in-waiting and a beloved former player expected to keep the team moving in the right direction.
Phillips steered the program to its fifth-straight bowl game in 2010, the first time in history the Wildcats had put together such a streak. But they looked listless in a loss to Pittsburgh to finish the year 6-7, and things only got worse in Phillips' second year.
The bowl streak ended. So did Kentucky's four-year winning streak over archrival Louisville. There was a glimmer of hope at the end, when the Wildcats' ended a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee while playing without their quarterback, but the fan base is fast becoming restless.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart twice issued a public vote of confidence in Phillips during the 2011 season. Season ticket sales are down for the second straight year, and most preseason magazines have Kentucky finishing last in the conference. That's the environment facing the Wildcats to open 2012.
1. How hot is Phillips' seat entering his third year?
It's hot enough that neither the coach nor his players can ignore it. Six wins and another bowl berth would likely earn Phillips another season, but this team will probably struggle to get there. Four wins would mean a third straight year of regression and would be difficult for him to survive. Five wins might not be enough in the minds of many fans, but Barnhart is known for his patience and could roll the dice on another year. It's a tough call at that point.
Most coaches would like to have more than three years to be evaluated on, especially at a place like Kentucky. But Phillips' designation as head-coach-in-waiting appears to have shortened his leash in the minds of many. His work as offensive coordinator was integral to turning the program around, but his long tenure with the program also means he bears at least some responsibility for what happened even before he was head coach.
2. What's the quarterback situation entering fall camp?
The conversation has to start with sophomore Maxwell Smith, who was adequate down the stretch as a true freshman in 2011. He stepped in when incumbent starter Morgan Newton tore his labrum on Oct. 29 against Mississippi State. Smith didn't blow anyone away in his three starts but was more consistent than Newton, who was a huge disappointment in his first full season as a starter.
Newton will just be fully recovered from his injury by the end of the summer but wasn't cleared to throw at all during spring practice, leaving Smith with all of the first team snaps. That means Smith will probably open the season as the starter, but the coaches have hinted that star recruit Patrick Towles, the No. 9 quarterback in the nation, will play as a true freshman. It might be in a package built specially for him or in a designated series or two each game, but he'll probably be on the field. If he performs well in limited opportunities and the team struggles early on, he could see an increased role as the season develops.
3. Are there any future stars on this team?
Towles would certainly be a candidate, but it might be too much to expect a true freshman quarterback to be a star in the rugged SEC - especially given the talent around him. Another young skill position player who will be counted on is wide receiver Daryl Collins, who redshirted last year after tearing his meniscus in fall camp. Otherwise, he probably would have been an important piece in what turned out to be a disappointing receiving corps without him. Collins, a cousin of Alabama star Dre Kirkpatrick, will likely see most of his time in 2012 in the slot and as a returner.
Linebacker Alvin Dupree ascended to the starting lineup late last year as a true freshman because of an injury and ran with the job. Despite limited playing time, he tied for second on the team with 2.5 sacks while learning to play Kentucky's hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. The Wildcats haven't had a consistent pass rusher in either of the last two seasons. If Dupree can take a step forward in his second year, it should help the defense greatly.
4. How does the schedule set up for Kentucky?
A loss to archrival Louisville in the season opener would set Phillips' seat aflame and set up a disappointing season. Beating the Cardinals, however, means Kentucky would probably roll through cupcakes Kent State and Western Kentucky to enter SEC play 3-0, with some confidence to spare. Drop that opener, though, and nearly all hopes for a bowl game look dim in the second week in September.
Phillips also has to avoid some of the embarrassing losses the program had a year ago. In a three-game stretch in 2011, Kentucky lost games to Florida, LSU and South Carolina by a combined margin of 127-20. It was the worst margin of defeat in a three-game stretch in the history of Kentucky football. Consecutive games in October at Arkansas, at home against Georgia and on the road at Missouri will push the Wildcats to their limits.
If they can survive the meat of the SEC schedule, though, there's hope at the end. The final three games are against Vanderbilt, Samford and Tennessee with a bye week tucked in between for some rest. Should Kentucky's bowl hopes still be alive by then, they'll have to make a push at the end to finish the season on the high note.
5. Why should people believe this team will be better than predicted?
If you want to be optimistic, you can take solace in the knowledge that there will probably be only one or two positions on the team taking a step back from last year. There will be four new starting linebackers, and losing seniors like Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy hurts (they were the leading and third-leading tacklers in the SEC in 2011, respectively). But the players replacing them are talented. Both starting corners have departed, but the secondary wasn't especially strong anyway. Ditto for the offensive line, which loses three starters but was banged up throughout the 2011 season.
Another year of experience on the rest of the team could mean several players take a step forward. Execution on defense should be improved as the team enters its second year in the complicated hybrid scheme implemented by coordinator Rick Minter. It's tough to imagine the offense will be as bad as it was a year ago, when it was ranked No. 118 in the nation.
That being said, the schedule doesn't get any easier, and a couple subpar recruiting classes appear to be catching up with the Wildcats. Kentucky will have to spring a couple surprises on opponents to return to a bowl game - or just to keep Phillips' job.
For additional Kentucky coverage, visit CatsIllustrated.com.