UK football

Mark Story: Fact is, Cats recruited just fine

Joker earns 4th year even if UK below .500

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 2, 2012 

Kentucky Vanderbilt Football

Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips yells from the sideline in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)


With another college football national signing day in the books, it's time for a Kentucky Wildcats football version of America's rad, new game show: Truth or Fiction?

1. Topic one: Louisville cleaned Kentucky's clock in football recruiting.

Verdict: Fiction.

Those who rank such things were all over the board on the relative strength of UK and U of L football recruiting. Rivals said Charlie Strong and Co. wooed the No. 40 class in the nation. It did not have Kentucky in its Top 50. The 24/7 Network said Louisville was No. 46, UK 53rd.

On the other hand, Scout ranked Joker Phillips' Kentucky signing class 31st and Louisville's 42nd.

Bottom line: There are so many variables in football recruiting, nobody really knows whose recruiting class will pan out the best.

2. Topic two: For all the fan negativity that engulfed UK football last season, the Kentucky program actually has some positive momentum right now.

Verdict: Truth.

It's fragile positive momentum, but there is some.

UK ended a lackluster 2011 season by putting up a gritty battle in a close loss to Georgia, then came the quarterback-less, streak-snapping epic over Tennessee. Both performances showed the Kentucky players had not quit on Phillips and his staff.

Then after all the speculation that UK would not be able to hold its recruiting class together because of the perception Phillips is on the hot seat, it did. Other than junior-college offensive lineman Darone Bailey, UK did not lose any players that were committed to the Cats when the 2011 regular-season ended.

Meanwhile, Kentucky added well-regarded Georgia prospects in running back Justin Taylor and linebacker Khalid Henderson at the signing deadline.

According to Rivals, UK signed four of the top 60 prospects in Georgia, four of the top 10 in-state prospects and players ranked in the Top 25 in both Indiana and Tennessee.

3. Topic three. Four-star quarterback prospect Patrick Towles should be the Kentucky starting quarterback as a true freshman in 2012.

Verdict: Fiction.

The Fort Thomas Highlands product, with his 42-touchdown-pass-versus-one-interception senior season, appears to have everything needed to follow Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson as home-grown QBs who became UK standouts.

But it's a really bad sign for Kentucky football if Towles is pressed into playing as a true freshman.

In an ideal scenario, sophomore Maxwell Smith will build on the promise he showed late last season and claim the UK starting job. Morgan Newton, if he's healthy, or transfer Jacob Russell would man the backup role, allowing Towles to redshirt.

That would give Towles a year of seasoning without the pressure of playing. It would also put two years between the talented Smith and Towles. Long term, both would be best for UK football.

4. Topic four. Joker Phillips has to beat Louisville in the 2012 season opener or he's a lame-duck head coach.

Verdict: Fiction.

Obviously, it would be far better for Kentucky to beat Louisville than not. UK's fragile positive program momentum will be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of negativity if the Cats fall to the Cards for a second season in a row.

But it would just be one game. UK lost to Louisville in both 1999 and 2006 and played in bowl games. It is possible for the Cats to lose to the Cards and still have a positive season.

5. Topic five. Joker Phillips has to have a winning season in 2012 to hold his job.

Verdict: Fiction.

Obviously, it would be far better for Kentucky to win more games than it loses rather than the opposite. Yet UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart has been wise in not putting any win-target to his expectations for Phillips and Co. in 2012.

Look, if UK goes 2-10, 3-9, it's going to be hard to argue in favor of staying the course with a third-year head coach who inherited a program riding a four-year bowl streak.

But what if Kentucky wins four or five games yet is clearly more competitive against SEC big boys than it was in 2011?

What if the current recruiting class and last year's class both appear to be stocked with promising young talent?

Under that scenario, avoiding the disruption of a coaching change would likely give Kentucky a better chance in 2013 than starting over.

Which is why saying UK absolutely has to have a winning record for Phillips to stay is not necessarily the case.

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