Phillips' sole focus should be recruiting

Cats have big holes to fill next season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 29, 2010 

Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips watched his team fall to Tennessee 24-14 on Nov. 27 last season. UK has been beaten by the Volunteers 26 straight times. "I'm not going to talk about the streak," Phillips said Monday.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF — Mark Cornelison | Staff

For Joker Phillips, the important part starts now.

The regular season is over. Nothing to do about that now. It was disappointing, especially considering that so many fellow conference members experienced similar disappointments. Florida. Georgia. Tennessee. This was the time for the Cats to plant their flag higher up the divisional mountain. Didn't happen. Time to move on.

The Cats are moving on to a bowl game, but the best-guess scenario has a 6-6 Kentucky stuck in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl — formerly known, by a few, as the PapaJohns.com Bowl — in Birmingham on Jan. 8.

If Big Blue Nation decides not to mark its calendar, few could blame it. The problem with going to mediocre bowls, even consecutive mediocre bowls, is that after a while your fan base starts to realize that these are mediocre bowls — especially when the base is paying higher ticket prices for the privilege.

A significant portion of the ticket revenue pays Phillips' salary, and this is a bottom-line profession. This space sticks by its lauding of the Phillips hire. But you knew there wouldn't be a honeymoon, and the Knoxville results cement the notion.

Consider that Tennessee has had three different coaches the past three seasons. All three beat Kentucky.

The Vols could change coaches three times a season and still beat the Cats.

So after a tough curtain-raising, "Operation Win" is on to Act II: Better recruit, and recruits.

His recruiting résumé was one reason Phillips was hired in the first place. He's always been known as a good talent evaluator with a winning home-visit smile. Phillips snatched Rafael Little out of South Carolina, recognized the unused talent in Jacob Tamme. He built the LaGrange pipeline. The start of the Rich Brooks talent upgrade happened while Phillips was recruiting coordinator.

Upon taking over the big office, Phillips emphasized a recruiting ramp-up. His staff changes appeared motivated by finding better recruiters.

Take Greg Nord. The former U of L assistant, and UK player, is a good coach, but he had never headed special teams before. Unfortunately, it showed. UK's special "forces" were inconsistent and unreliable.

Take Saturday. A long kickoff return. Duped on a fake punt.

Twice in the fourth quarter, UK's punter had a chance to pin Tennessee back deep in its own territory, only to fail both times. But Nord was primarily hired for his recruiting contacts.

Now is the time to put those to work. It's all about players. Bash defensive coordinator Steve Brown all you want, but outside of possibly Danny Trevathan, there's not a readily apparent NFL-caliber player on the defense.

Meanwhile, the Cats play in a league that had 49 players drafted last April. It won't be much different this April. Nor will UK's schedule next fall.

The Cats' offense will be different. Quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and wideout Chris Matthews will all be gone.

The educated guess here is that Randall Cobb will opt for a shot at playing on Sundays next season. There's a rebuilding job to be done on that side of the ball.

So the telling question isn't whether Joker should have punted with 7:47 left, down two scores. Or whether Randy Sanders should have thrown the ball down the field. Or should Steve Brown blitz more.

The important question is whether Phillips can sign the players the Cats need to compete.

There's your bottom line.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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