There's always a bit of mystery about the opening game of the season. Newcomers step into the lineup, veterans take expanded roles, and there are new plays.
But when a new coordinator or a new coach is hired, it gives coaches an added wrinkle. It's tougher to gameplan for a program with no film showcasing the offensive or defensive scheme from the previous season. Western Kentucky hired Lance Guidry, previously the defensive backs coach at Miami of Ohio, as its new defensive coordinator this spring.
It's the third consecutive year Kentucky will open the season against an opponent with a new defensive scheme. The Wildcats opened the 2009 season against Mike Haywood, who was in his first game as a head coach at Miami of Ohio. The 2010 season began against Louisville and first-year head coach Charlie Strong, who had been the defensive coordinator at Florida.
With no film of the team from the previous year to review, coaches have to watch a combination of film from the opponent's school and the coach's previous school to prepare. Watching film on Western Kentucky's defense in 2010 will give coaches an idea of their personnel, but not the schemes they'll face. Film from the coach's previous school can give them an idea on schemes, but it's still a challenge to piece together a game plan.
"It makes it tough," Phillips said. "We have to watch some Miami film from last year."
If there is an advantage for Kentucky's offense it's that the new defensive scheme installed by co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter incorporates a variety of looks. Playing against a defense that has so many different packages has given the offense experience against
"What we've seen in practice, there's not much more you can do," Phillips said. "That's what the game is about, who can adjust the fastest. If they give us something we're not expecting, we have to adjust and our kids understand how to adjust because of the things they've seen in practice."
The first time the Kentucky offense lined up in 11 on 11 drills against Minter's defense, junior guard Larry Warford said the defense looked "crazy."
"Half the time we didn't know what they were doing," he said. "They just have so much stuff coming at you. Any team this year could throw anything at us right now, we've already seen it from our defense. There are so many different ways."
Warford said the scheme includes packages in a traditional 4-3 as well as a 3-4 and a 4-2-5. Thanks to that, he's confident the offense can handle whatever new defense WKU has up its sleeves.
Of course, the Hilltoppers also have to contend with trying to plan for Minter's defense without having any film on how the Wildcat defense will look.
"It works both ways," Phillips said. "I'm sure they've been studying Rick's past and I'm sure there will definitely be an advantage for both sides on defense."
Morgan Newton "night and day"
Phillips continued to praise junior quarterback Morgan Newton.
"It's night and day," Phillips said. "You don't recognize the guy that we had in the bowl game. It's a lot different than what we had in the bowl game and a lot of that has to do with getting reps and understanding our schemes better, understanding our protection.
"When he played as a true freshman, he knew nothing. He didn't know how to protect himself, we had to be as simple as we could possibly be. That's the process of how we develop quarterbacks. Now he has it, he's fixing protection, checking plays."
Phillips said he expects the offensive scheme to be similar to what Kentucky had last year. That includes a vertical passing game despite the loss of Mike Hartline, Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews.
He's also been impressed with Newton's command of the huddle, which could be especially important with the loss of Cobb's leadership.
"We said there'd never be another Tim Couch and Andre' Woodson comes around," Phillips said. "We said there'd never be another Andre' Woodson, and I'm hoping Morgan becomes one of those guys."
When asked to pick a relatively unknown player to have a breakout season this year, Warford endorsed defensive end Collins Ukwu.
"Ukwu has gotten a lot better since last year," Warford said. "He's really stepped his game up. He's going to be a force."
Ukwu, a 6-foot-5, 255 pound junior, started every game in 2010 and three games as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He posted only one sack in each of those years, but coaches have been pleased with his improvement in fall camp.
Warford also singled out defensive tackle Luke McDermott. Junior defensive end Taylor Wyndham also pegged McDermott as a breakout candidate. McDermott began last season as a starter at defensive tackle before losing playing time to Donte Rumph and Mark Crawford as the season wore on.
But he was listed as a starter at defensive tackle on the depth chart released Monday ahead of sophomore Mister Cobble, and was tied for the team lead with three sacks last year.
"Luke is ridiculous," Warford said. "He's just so fast and powerful, he uses his hands really well. It's hard to pass protect against him."
Three starters will be limited in the season opener on Thursday.
Senior guard Stuart Hines, a team captain, won't start. He sprained his knee early in camp and while he has since returned, he'll be replaced in the lineup by sophomore Kevin Mitchell. Hines is expected to play. Mitchell took the majority of the first team snaps in fall camp after Hines was injured.
Junior center Matt Smith, who has been nursing an ankle injury, won't start either. He'll be replaced by senior Jake Lanefski, a utility lineman who has seen action all over the offensive line in his career. Smith and Lanefski battled for the starting center job in 2010 before Smith edged him out. Smith is expected to play.
Senior safety Taiedo Smith will also play, but junior Mike Benton will start in his place. Smith has been held out in practice with an undisclosed injury. Smith was expected to open the season as a backup to senior Mychal Bailey, who has been suspended for the season opener.