John Clay: Joker Phillips rebuilding through recruiting

UK coach excited about freshmen's potential

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 7, 2011 

On the mountain climb from 2006 through 2009 when Rich Brooks was taking Kentucky football from bottom to bowls, the assumption was step-by-step the roster's talent level was on the rise.

Three recent events have given me reason to rethink such an assessment, however.

First came when Joker Phillips became head coach. Instead of sticking with the status quo, the longtime assistant reshuffled the staff deck. Forced out the door were some formerly tried-and-true aides.

In came Tee Martin, a popular wide-out coach with Southern recruiting ties. In came Greg Nord, a former Louisville assistant with deep in-state recruiting ties. In came Mike Summers, another former U of L assistant with NFL experience.

All three moves were made with one goal in mind: recruiting.

Next came an off-season post about the SEC in which research showed that since 2000, only Vanderbilt (14) had fewer NFL draft picks than Kentucky (18). It also found that only Mississippi State (0) had fewer first-round picks than the Cats (1) during that span.

Footnote: The one UK first-rounder, Dewayne Robertson in 2003, was not even a Brooks signee. Plus, the Cats had one player — second-round pick Randall Cobb — chosen in this year's draft.

The third indicator was Phillips' announcement Friday of a significant change in UK's player interview policy. Made available for interviews on Media Day, the freshmen would be off limits until after the season's first game, Sept. 1 against Western Kentucky in Nashville.

"We will play more freshmen than we have in the past — especially at the skill positions," said Phillips in explaining the change. "And I just think that those guys just need to be focused on football, getting themselves ready."

Why would more freshmen play this year? Simple, because there is a need for them to play this year.

It's all about recruiting. Phillips has played in the SEC. He's coached in the SEC, at a couple of different stops. He's been a coordinator in the SEC. He has been a head-coach-in-waiting in the SEC. What is more important is the players in the SEC.

To that end, Phillips believes he has a good incoming class. Maybe even an important one.

Example: The receiver position. UK lost not only Cobb but Chris Matthews. The Cats haven't had a standout tight end since Jacob Tamme was snagging Andre Woodson's throws. Now Phillips says he has five incoming receivers who are "true receivers," not high school quarterbacks or running backs who must be taught the position.

"That's the thing that excites me," Martin said at the Governor's Cup Luncheon. "They have a familiarity with the position."

As well, rookie backs Josh Clemons and Marcus Caffey have received significant hype. Noted defensive back Glenn Faulkner said on Media Day he considers himself a "swag cover-guy." You have to like that.

You must be fair with the previous staff. While UK may not have produced an abundance of draft picks over the Brooks era, the depth chart was without the gaping holes from previous years.

Still, it takes studs for a team to truly shine. Both the league coaches and the media identified two Cats as such in their pre-season picks. Linebacker Danny Trevathan was first-team defense. Offensive guard Larry Warford was first-team offense. The only other UK player among the three all-conference squads was punter Ryan Tydlacka.

So there are holes to fill. Phillips indicated first-year players will receive every opportunity to fill those holes.

We are about to find out just how well Kentucky's recruiting is really going.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or Read his blog at

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