John Clay: Phillips says Kentucky football can be a contender

Coach says Catscan contend in SEC

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 24, 2011 

Kentucky football fans are worried.

The Kentucky football coach is excited.

Kentucky football fans have low expectations.

The Kentucky football coach thinks his team can be a contender for the Southeastern Conference championship next season.

"Why not?" said Joker Phillips on Saturday, he being the football coach in question, after his team finished spring drills with its annual Blue-White Spring Game.

Kentucky football fans look back at the departures of Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Chris Matthews, the change at quarterback from Mike Hartline to Morgan Newton.

Phillips looks ahead.

"I expect us to be in the title race for longer than we've been here," he said Saturday. "We've got to talk title. I don't want to talk going to a sixth straight bowl. I want to talk about, 'How can we stay in the title race?' Our guys have got to believe that, too."

Why does Phillips believe it?

"How close we've been," he answered. "How close have we been around here? We need a couple of those balls to bounce our way up; we need a couple of more plays made by some of our guys. We've been very, very close to being in this title race a little bit longer."

The majority of the fans would probably not agree. That's safe to say. They're concerned. They see a program that suffered its first losing season since 2005. They see a program that has lost back-to-back bowl games, including the embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh this past January in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

They see an offense that lost its two best players from a year ago and a defense that has struggled.

Sure, new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter brings a promising new system, but how long will it take the Cats to adjust to the scheme? And does Kentucky have the players to make it work?

Were any minds eased on Saturday? Hard to tell, especially in a format where first-teamers were matched against second-teamers.

Receivers dropped ball after ball after ball, but most were well-thrown by quarterback Morgan Newton. That's progress. Believe those spring reports that Newton is a much better passer than he was a year ago. They're true.

"Night and day," said Phillips.

It was tougher to tell about the defense. Justin Henderson, a redshirt freshman defensive end, had a huge game, but so often backups shine in the Blue-White scrimmage, only to never be heard from again.

Ridge Wilson did some good things. The guess here is, we'll be hearing more from him in the fall, especially in a scheme designed to cause more chaos.

And yet, it's easy to see the program taking a step backward in 2011. It's hard to see an offense without Cobb and Locke being more productive. There are concerns about a defensive line that appears undersized by SEC standards.

It's also difficult seeing Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all suffering through another down year.

Those factors are behind the fans' pessimism. After a 6-7 season, some are wondering whether Phillips is the right guy, whether the program is sliding backward, if tough times are ahead.

"We don't worry about the outside," Phillips said. "The only thing I worry about is the guys, when we lock arms. And I heard this from Coach (Greg) Nord from when I was a player. Hey, let's lock arms and get to work. That's the only guys that I worry about."

He's only worried about what it will take to make his team a contender.

"I truly believe it," he said. "Why not us? I truly mean that. I may get blasted for saying it, but why not us? ... I believe we can stay in this title race longer than we've ever been."

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. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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