Kentucky's Phillips says football Cats 'not that far away'

Coach optimistic despite poor bowl performance

ccosby@herald-leader.comJanuary 12, 2011 

Coach Joker Phillips said he doesn't expect Kentucky's bowl loss to hurt recruiting. He also said there will be an open competition for starting quarterback next season.

CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF

Kentucky's season-ending 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl left a sour taste in a lot of people's mouths.

And the Cats were left with a lot of question marks heading into the 2011 season.

Three top offensive playmakers (quarterback Mike Hartline, running back Derrick Locke and wide receiver Chris Matthews) have completed their eligibility. And top juniors Randall Cobb and Danny Trevathan are considering forgoing their senior seasons and entering the NFL Draft.

But UK Coach Joker Phillips said Tuesday night he feels good about the direction of the program after completing his first season with a 6-7 record. Phillips pointed to several factors from the 2010 season that offer hope for the future: UK's win over archrival Louisville, the program's first victory over South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier, playing eventual national champion Auburn to the wire, and several young players he expects to emerge in the future.

"We're not that far away," he said. "We were a couple of bounces away from winning eight games. We were also a couple of bounces from winning four. We've got enough good players here. We've got to get more good players here. And that to me speaks volumes to where our program is at, that we've got two guys with the opportunity to consider going to the NFL."

Phillips will spend the rest of this month trying to put the finishing touches on his 2011 recruiting class. The Cats got some bad news when offensive lineman Nick Martin revoked his commitment to UK and committed to Notre Dame earlier this week, but Phillips said he isn't worried about negative effects on recruiting after the loss to Pitt.

"We've been here before," Phillips said. "We lost to Clemson last year (in the Music City Bowl), and we were in this similar situation.

"Everybody thought it would have a negative effect, but we'll do the same thing this year and sell our program."

Phillips noted that after 2007, when the program lost top playmakers Andre Woodson, Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Rafael Little and Steve Johnson, the staff signed Cobb, who earned first-team All-America honors as a junior.

"We've just got to go find more guys like him, more offensive players who can catch the ball and make plays for us," Phillips said.

"We've brought in guys who weren't highly recruited. Randall Cobb wasn't, but we were able to see his heart and soul and desire to play this game and develop him as a wide receiver. The same with Mike Hartline and Danny Trevathan. That's the thing we'll sell to recruits.

"'Come here, stay in the program; we'll develop you, and you'll have the opportunity to leave early.' "

Phillips said he thought the transition after Rich Brooks' retirement went well but acknowledged having to make tough decisions regarding some of Brooks' holdovers. He removed defensive line coach Rick Petri, offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and special teams coach Steve Ortmayer before the season and let go safeties coach Chris Thurmond and running backs coach Larry Brinson after the loss at Tennessee. He also brought in Rick Minter, who will run the defense while serving as co-coordinator with Steve Brown.

Phillips said he expects Brown to remain on staff and added that there are no other staff changes to announce at this time.

"A lot of tough decisions you have to make, and you have to live with them," Phillips said. "You can't question yourself. You can't look back once you make them. And I know I'll be questioned about them. But I can't question myself. When you make a decision, you have to make it and go with it."

Phillips said he had no gut feeling about whether Cobb and Trevathan would return. Underclassmen have until Saturday to declare for the draft.

A key for 2011 will be the quarterback position, and Phillips said the competition will be open among sophomore Morgan Newton, redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski and true freshman Maxwell Smith.

"The quarterback battle is very critical," Phillips said. "The difference between winning and losing games is the quarterback position. We haven't had the consistency of any of the three, so we'll have to open it up."

Outside of that, Phillips will rely on freshman running back Raymond Sanders to step in for Locke and receiver La'Rod King to help fill the void left by Matthews' and possibly Cobb's departures. He also pointed to an offensive line that's set to return four starters and a group of tight ends that return intact.

So while fans have bemoaned the lack of momentum in the aftermath of the bowl loss, Phillips said he sees things moving in the right direction.

"Last year, everybody said we'd be lucky if we won four; we won six," he said. "Are we happy with that? No. There's no one more passionate about this program than me. As many bowls as we've been in, there's no one who's been to more than me in the history of Kentucky. I want to go to bowl games here, and I also want to compete for championships."

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