The following is an excerpt from an exclusive Q & A with Kentucky coach Joker Phillips for the 2011 Cats’ Pause Kentucky Football Yearbook. You can order the season preview magazine at ShopCatsPause.com.
Joker Phillips heads into his second season as head coach of Kentucky with a staff in place he says reflects his personality and with a determination to get the Cats on course to compete in the SEC East after what he deemed a season of “missed opportunities.” Phillips recently sat down with Cats’ Pause general manager Darrell Bird for an extensive question-and-answer session.
THE CATS’ PAUSE: How do you view last season, your first as head coach?
JOKER PHILLIPS: We get ourselves into a bowl game and then have something happen to a fifth year player who had never been in any trouble whatsoever. We could easily have suspended him for the spring – seriously, some schools have done that – but that’s not what Kentucky is about. We’re about making sure that we get the long-lasting affects for this program. So we go from a team averaging 34 points with an experienced quarterback to doing what we had to do and we weren’t as sharp in the bowl game.
Yes, we ended the year with a downer, no question about that. But doing what we did is going to help this program for the future. I already see the quarterback who played in that game looking as good as he’s ever looked. I think it’s helped our program by me making the statement that no one person is bigger than the team. I think we’re as together as this team has ever been because of that.
TCP: Suspending quarterback Mike Hartline before the bowl game was your first true test as you moved from the shadows of Rich Brooks, himself a stern disciplinarian.
PHILLIPS: It was a huge statement, and our players get it. They understand what we’ve done and that’s what this thing is all about.
TCP: What did you learn about yourself in that first season as the boss?
PHILLIPS: I stretched myself way too thin with things outside of football. Rich told me on the way out that, ‘Hey, you’ve got to learn how to say no.’ But I wanted to get our message out there, what our program is about. And not only was I trying to sell the Big Blue Nation our plan, I was also trying to sell the coaches our plan. Now, they understand our plan enough that if someone calls from the Rotary Club I don’t feel like I’m the one who has to do it. If someone calls from Cincinnati, Rick Minter can handle it. Steve Pardue has the Owensboro area, and he can get the message out over there because we’re all speaking the same language now. Everybody is on the same page so now I can do more football.
TCP: You have changed six of the nine assistant coaches since you became head coach. Is your staff rounding into what you envisioned when you took over?
PHILLIPS: Yes, I’m pleased with this staff. It has to reflect my personality and I understand that. If you look at this staff, everybody I’ve hired has been somebody that I’ve worked with. That’s how you hire. You shouldn’t have to interview a coach. That’s everybody except Tee Martin, but I’ve been around him enough and Randy Sanders had coached with him. Everybody I’ve hired is someone that I’m completely comfortable with and confident that they can get done what I want to get done.
TCP: Last year, you said that you wanted your offense to have an “attacking” scheme. How does that apply to this team, which lost so many experienced, skill position players.
PHILLIPS: This year, we’ll have to begin with the run because of the experience of the guys up front and the inexperience of our playmakers on the perimeter. We’ve got to start with the running game, but the running game doesn’t mean that you’re not attacking. You’re attacking the perimeter, you’re attacking inside. But we also know that we have to throw the football. We have proven that’s what we want to do. If you look at us, we’ve been in the top one or two in passing offense a lot of years. We want to throw the football. But people don’t understand that attacking doesn’t mean you’re throwing the ball over the place. It’s attacking different areas.
TCP: Last year it was a veteran offense that was trying to give the defense time to mature. Is Kentucky ever going to reach the point when both halves make the whole?
PHILLIPS: We are hopeful that by the time we hit game three or four that our offense will have grown up to the point of our defense because it’s never been even around here. It’s been a cycle. We’re always trying to catch up on one side of the ball or the other. When we first got here, we feel like we didn’t had the speed we needed on offense so we went out and got us some players. Then we found out we didn’t have enough speed on defense so we went after defensive guys. Then there is the issue of redshirting. You usually will redshirt defensive guys while offensive guys might play right away.
In 2006 and ’07, we were really good offensively and our defense was real young. In 2008 and ’09, it was the other way around. Our defense was old and our offense was young. Then last year, we had become young on defense again.
TCP: On defense, there was much chatter about 4-3 vs. 3-4 and the scheme preferred by new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter.
PHILLIPS: We’ll be multiple. Look at any team that’s a 4-3 and you’ll see them get into some 3-4 looks. You’ll see a 3-4 jump into four-down looks. Georgia was a 3-4 team based on personnel, but when you watch film most of their alignments were 4-3. You’re going to see multiple fronts from teams and that’s what we’ll be. We’ll be able to put some speed guys on the field because the secondary is our strength based on experience. We could have five or six DBs on the field, we could have as many as five linebackers on the field.
TCP: Your defense not only has its top 11 tacklers back, but is lead by all-SEC linebacker Danny Trevathan.
PHILLIPS: Danny is going to flourish no matter what system you put him in. They guy is so smart, with such good instincts and then he can run and close and finish plays. He’ll be a great player in any system. Mentally, he’s changed, too. The issue for us is going to be whether he can hold up given the way he plays. He runs into people so violently that he breaks his hand. If he can stay healthy, I think he can play football for a long, long time.
TCP: You talked earlier about an attacking offense, but it sounds like defense might be taking on its own attacking mindset?
PHILLIPS: That’s what we were looking for, a defense that creates minus yards plays, which gets teams into long yardage downs. And then when they have long yardage, we force the turnover. It’s a change in mindset by putting more speed on the field. Rick’s system puts more speed on the field. You might be a little undersized, but when you’re undersized, you better be moving and you better be blitzing, you better be twisting and shouting.
TCP: What are your thoughts on opening the season Thursday, Sept. 1 against Western Kentucky at LP Field in Nashville?
PHILLIPS: I think it’s big for both of us. It’s a big-time area for us that we want to be in. It’s a huge alumni base. We’re excited about it, and exciting to be opening the season on a Thursday night. We’ll be on a big stage that night and everybody should be watching.
TCP: Do you pay much attention or do you worry about what your friend Charlie Strong is doing at Louisville and who he is getting in recruiting?
PHILLIPS: You don’t worry, but you have to keep an eye on them. We keep an eye on every team on our schedule. The internet gives you the means to find out what’s going on with anyone’s program. You’re always scouting them and build a scouting report. We definitely have to take a peek at them every now and then and I’m sure they’re doing the same thing.