Joker Phillips begins his third season as head coach of Kentucky looking to improve on records of 6-7 and 5-7, including an end last year to a streak of five straight bowl bids for the Cats. The coach recently sat down with Cats’ Pause general manager Darrell Bird for a lengthy question-and-answer session.
The Cats’ Pause: At the start of each season, all teams are undefeated and hope springs eternal. Following a 5-7 season, what gives you hope for 2012?
Joker Phillips: What gives me hope is the way we finished. We finished pretty strong in our last two games (19-10 loss at No. 13 Georgia and a 10-7 home win over Tennessee). As you looked out there, because of injuries and because of some guys losing their jobs, there were a lot of young kids out there. A lot of young kids making plays. We’ve always had good young players, two to three in every class, but there are more of them now. And a good-looking class just walked in here. I’m excited about those guys, too.
Cats’ Pause: Recruiting has remained on an up-tick despite the losing records.
Phillips: This staff has done a really good job of consistent recruiting. There are 52 freshmen and sophomores in our program, and when you look at the number of guys in that group who can help us, that number is a lot larger than when we first took over.
When we took over, there were a lot of guys that we felt we made mistakes on. Now, the number of mistakes is way down. The junior and senior classes are small for a reason. They’re small because a lot of guys didn’t think they could play here, a lot of guys we didn’t think could play here. The young classes are bigger because we feel like there have been less mistakes made.
In recruiting, there is no exact science. You make mistakes in recruiting. But a lot of it has to do with the fact there are so many good recruiters on this staff. There are nine really good recruiters. Good recruiters have a lot to do with evaluation and being able to land the players.
There are not two or three guys who have to recruit them all. Before, there were a couple of guys who had to recruit them all and you’re going to come up with mistakes. A guy should be able to recruit two or three, maybe four guys and that’s what we have now.
Cats’ Pause: Critics have voiced concern about future recruiting efforts because every coach is age 45 or older. There is a perception that recruiting is a “young man’s game.” Do you agree?
Phillips: It’s not an old staff by any means, it’s a young-minded staff. This game keeps you young. But I don’t think recruiting is a young’s man game. The thing that I see is there are so many single-parent players out there. A lot of these guys on this staff are father figures. These guys understand how important relationships are. All of these young kids want relationships. They want that father-son relationship, they don’t want a situation where the coach is their buddy. I think a lot of these kids are looking for that father-son relationship and that’s what our staff is bringing to this recruiting business.
Cats’ Pause: How much of a tangible ‘bounce’ is there for your squad this season based on the miracle win over Tennessee to end last season when wide receiver Matt Roark was forced to play quarterback?
Phillips: What’s lost in the way we won that game is how well we played on defense and special teams. Everybody talks about the offense and how great it was, but that’s all we had. That’s what we had to do. But we would not have been able to play that way had we not played like we did on defense and special teams. The defense was one huge play from tossing a shutout and on special teams, Tennessee was forced to drive 70 yards or more on every series. Look who was playing on defense. It was mostly young guys – Bud Dupree, Eric Dixon, Christian Coleman, Avery Williamson. But what also makes you feel good is that every senior made a huge impact. I was happy to see all those guys go out the way they did. The seniors went out in a special way. But the way those guys played, that’s what gives you hope.
Kentucky hopes Maxwell Smith takes the next step in his development
Cats’ Pause: The Southeastern Conference was already the best league in America and now Missouri and Texas A&M have been added to the roster. What are your thoughts on those changes?
Phillips: We tell our team that the toughest conference just got tougher because we’ve added two quality teams to the mix. We used to have a three- to four-game gauntlet and then you have a break. Now, it’s going to be a four- to five-game gauntlet. But we’re part of that also. People don’t understand, we’re not a pushover team. When teams start to prepare for us, they worry about us. When teams get finished playing us, they’re beat up.
Cats’ Pause: You announced in April plans to throw the football more in 2012, maybe to the tune of 65 percent pass, 35 percent run. Why the change?
Phillips: Because that’s what our quarterbacks can do. Our receivers are starting to become the type of receivers where we can get it in their hands and they can make plays for us. We saw it in the spring from DeMarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. LaRod King has been consistent in games. We’ve got some playmakers out there.
Cats’ Pause: Why is there so much buzz about tight end Ronnie Shields?
Phillips: We think Ronnie Shields can be one of the better tight ends in this league. You know, Jacob Tamme hadn’t done much of anything before his third year and this is going to be Ronnie Shields’ third year in the program. Coach Nord has been saying since the first day he was on campus that Ronnie Shields will be one of those guys that everybody will be wondering, ‘Where in the hell did they get him?’ It’s taken a while, the weight room has to take effect. The consistency of getting reps had to take effect. We had so many tight ends that he wasn’t getting a lot of reps. But now he’s pushed past a lot of those guys.
Cats’ Pause: Is tight end the strongest position on offense?
Phillips: It’s our deepest position. Tyler Robinson had a really good spring. He quietly got himself better in the passing game. He’s not going to wow you with his speed or with being able to handle the defensive ends in this league. But he’ll consistently stay in their way and if he does get run over, he’ll get run over slowly, which gives our running backs a chance.
Cats’ Pause: Why is it important to have good tight ends in the SEC?
Phillips: You have to be able to protect at least one edge. If you go with no tight ends, you have no protection on either edge and it makes it really tough for both offensive tackles.
Cats’ Pause: Let’s talk quarterback. Morgan Newton is a senior returning from surgery. Maxwell Smith is a sophomore who started games at the end of the year. Kentucky Mr. Football Patrick Towles is an incoming freshman. How is quarterback going to play out this season?
Phillips: I don’t know, but that’s a good problem that we have. We have one guy (Newton) who started over half the season. We have another guy (Smith) who went in and played a lot better than the guy who started over half the season. Then we’ve got a talented freshman (Towles) who just walked on campus. We’re starting to have depth at quarterback and we’ve never had depth at that position, ever.
Cats’ Pause: Will all three quarterbacks compete for the starting job when fall camp begins in August?
Phillips: Definitely. I’ve heard people say we didn’t give this guy a chance or that guy a chance, but if you’re practicing you’re getting an opportunity. All three of those guys will have an opportunity to compete for the job.
We’re not in the business where we play the superintendent’s kid. We can’t do that. Just because we recruited a kid means he has to play? No, we’re not in that business. We have to play the best player who gives us the best opportunity to win. Early in the season last year, Morgan gave us the best opportunity. Late in the season, Max gave us that.
Linebacker Bud Dupree is expected to make a major impact in 2012
Cats’ Pause: Is Morgan Newton healthy after recovering from shoulder surgery?
Phillips: I’m so happy and proud for him that he gets another opportunity to compete. The guy has been here every morning, some days in the parking lot waiting for the doors to be opened, so he can go to work. That’s the way it should be, especially for a guy who was injured and didn’t get to go through spring and saw a guy ahead of him getting better every day. If I’m Morgan, I’d be here at 6 o’clock every morning getting ready to compete.
Cats’ Pause: How do you handle the hype that surrounds true freshman Patrick Towles, the Kentucky Mr. Football?
Phillips: We have to be patient with him. Everybody has to understand that he’s still a freshman, but we also have to give him a chance to see if he can beat those two guys. If he’s able to come in and beat out those two guys, then we’ve got a good situation at quarterback.
Cats’ Pause: How difficult is it for a true freshman to win the starting quarterback job for an SEC team? Phillips: It’s very hard, but it’s been done before.
Cats’ Pause: Running back will be by committee with Josh Clemons, CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George, plus incoming freshmen Dy’shawn Mobley and Justin Taylor. Is that desirable?
Phillips: Yes. Look across our conference, all of them are by committee. Alabama had the best running back in the nation and they were by committee. He didn’t get every rep. When the game was on the line, yes Trent Richardson was in the game. But there were two to three other backs playing for them. At Georgia, Isaiah Crowell didn’t play every snap. He couldn’t hold up in this league. Nobody can. Anybody who would try that would be getting a medical hardship. You just can’t hold up.
Ours has to be that way, too, and ours are a lot smaller. Now, a big back, Dy’Shawn Mobley, just walked onto campus at 225 pounds. He has a chance, in the future, to be an every down back. But I think it will always be by committee. One guy may get more reps and more carries, but there won’t be a back in this league carry 30 to 35 times a game like Moe Williams did here.
Cats’ Pause: At wide receiver, is senior LaRod King ready to be the leader for a young group of wideouts?
Phillips: He is the veteran and we’re slowly trying to make him that guy. I think he’s ready to be the guy who catches more passes than anybody else, the leader in receiving. But he has to be consistent in what he does to be the vocal leader. LaRod King didn’t have a great spring. He had too many things going on – a baby being born, which we knew about, and pledging a fraternity, which we didn’t know about. I don’t see a leader trying to do all those things. I see a leader trying to focus on his football. LaRod had way too many things going on this spring to give him leadership of the wide receiver position. And that’s the one thing that group has been missing is leadership. We’ve always had it. That’s why when I took over as offensive coordinator I kept coaching the receivers. I could have had the quarterbacks, but I wanted the receivers because the offense takes on the personality of the receiving group, in my opinion. Look in the NFL, which group has been the biggest negative? It’s been the receivers. I wanted those guys to talk, act and think like me. That’s why I stayed with the receivers. We’ve had Derek Abney as a captain. Keenan Burton was a captain. Tommy Cook. Randall Cobb. That’s four out of nine years that someone from the receiver position was a captain. I don’t know if LaRod King can be a captain here yet, I really don’t. But I think that’s what we’re missing. I think it was missing last season.
Cats’ Pause: What do the young receivers bring to the offense in 2012?
Phillips: I think there are some big-time playmakers in that group. DeMarco Robinson and Daryl Collins are two that come to mind right off the bat. Now, I don’t think those two guys are ready to be leaders, so it’s really important that LaRod become one of those guys. And I think Gene McCaskill has that ability even more than LaRod to be the leader of the group. He’s seen a lot of those leaders we’ve had in the past. He couldn’t lead last year because he wasn’t healthy, but we need Gene McCaskill to be healthy because I think a lot of those young kids look up to him.
Cats’ Pause: Is part of the reason you talk of passing more in 2012 because of the potential of the young wide receivers?
Phillips: Yet, but it’s also because I think our offensive line is better at pass blocking. In the past, we’ve always used the pass to set up the run. The last couple of years of we’ve run to set up the pass. We have to be a team that throws to set up the run.
Darrian Miller is one of several young offensive lineman expected to start
Cats’ Pause: The offensive line has to be five guys moving as one unit, but yet you’ve got three holes to fill from last year with only right guard Larry Warford and center Matt Smith among the returning starters.
Phillips: It wasn’t five guys moving as one last year and we had a veteran group. The reason was they weren’t healthy. You’d have three out of practice all week. Sometimes they did play, but they couldn’t practice all week. So we weren’t really as one last year and that was probably the most veteran group we’ve had around here in a long time.
We need five guys moving as one, and we need five guys communicating as one. Larry and Matt do communicate but they don’t need to as much as the others. They recognize when a linebacker walks up that Matt has to go hard left and Larry has to come protect him because the nose guard is on him. But what concerns you about the other three guys is that they’re all talented, but look at Darrian Miller, Zach West and Kevin Mitchell. They don’t talk. They all three tweet, but you can’t tweet in the middle of the game. You can’t tweet that a linebacker just walked up. We have to get those guys to talk to each other. Darrian has Larry beside him but if somebody comes up in Zach and Kevin’s gap, who’s going to talk?
Cats’ Pause: What makes Larry Warford so good?
Phillips: He’s so athletic. So explosive. He understands leverage. He really understands how to use his hands. That’s what makes him such a good player. He never even thought about going to the NFL, never even walked into my office to talk about. And he would have been our first player taken in the draft, no question about it.
Cats’ Pause: On the defensive line, Kentucky finally has two big defensive tackles in Mister Cobble (6-0, 328) and Donte Rumph (6-3, 301) much like the best teams in the SEC. Why is that position so important?
Phillips: It’s especially important this year because we are so young at linebacker. If those two guys can hold the point, it gives those linebackers a chance to run around and make plays.
Cats’ Pause: A team that does not have good defensive tackle play is open to what?
Phillips: Open to getting embarrassed by the other team’s running game. There’s nothing more demoralizing than when people can run on you. Those two guys and Collins Ukwu (6-5, 252) and Taylor Wyndham (6-4, 243), who will rotate as our third defensive lineman in the 3-4 defense, give us a chance to hold the point and leave the linebackers free to make plays. You don’t see defensive linemen make a lot of plays, and they shouldn’t because they’re going to get double-teamed a lot.
Cats’ Pause: What about those linebackers where Danny Trevathan and Ronnie Sneed are gone and Bud Dupree steps in?
Phillips: I think that group is going to be better than people think. We had to replace Sam Maxwell and Micah Johnson and we replaced them with Danny and Ronnie. Now, we have to replace those guys with Avery Williamson and Bud Dupree. We think Bud Dupree could be a high draft pick, as high as we’ve had at that position in a long time. It’s because of his size and speed. He’s willing to learn this game. He’s working his tail off in the weight room, working his tail off in the film room. He holds study sessions in history. He has a real high GPA. When talk about what you look for at the linebacker position, he’s exactly what you’re looking for.
Cats’ Pause: Is the secondary the biggest question on the defensive side of the ball?
Phillips: It is. But Marcus Caffey is a guy I’ve fallen in love with over there because he is such a big, athletic guy. He is someone we haven’t had around here because he can go and challenge receivers. Our guys in the past would challenge receivers, but they were so small. Even Trevard Lindley, who was one of the best, was small. This guy gives us a chance to have someone even better than Trevard because he’s 200 pounds and physical. He’s Trevard Lindley at 200 pounds, that’s what he is. Now we have two physical corners in Caffey and Cartier Rice. We want to be up in people’s face and take away all the hitch routes. To do that, we have to have corners who can challenge on the fade routes. Both these guys can do that.
Cats’ Pause: How much more difficult is the cornerback position today than yesterday because of the rule changes that favor wide receivers?
Phillips: It’s a lot harder, and the receivers are a lot bigger, too. You have to use your hands and feet to get in front of people and challenge down the field. Last year, we got beat down field more than you would like. You have to be able to challenge receivers down the field.
Cats’ Pause: The return game on special teams has always been a strength at Kentucky until last season when the Cats had no scoring threat on kick returns and averaged one yard per punt return. What are the prospects this season?
Phillips: We didn’t have that dynamic guy last year, but we’re starting to feel better about our return game. DeMarco Robinson is in his second year and we’re starting to feel better about our punt returns. On kickoff returns, DeMarco will be one of those guys with Caffey doing a lot of the kick returns. Ashely Lowery and Daryl Collins will be kick return guys. You want a little more bulk so we think Dy’Shawn Mobley will be a kick return guy also.
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