John Clay: Joker can take inspiration from UK baseball revival

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 21, 2012 

A year ago, they wanted Gary Henderson's scalp.

He was finishing his third year as the Kentucky baseball coach. A losing year. The fans/fanatics didn't think he was up to the task. His predecessor, John Cohen, had produced. After moving from assistant to the top spot, Henderson had not. Restless were the fans.

This year, Henderson rallied. Kentucky is 34-6 overall, 12-5 in the SEC. After a tough loss Friday night, it rebounded Saturday to pound SEC West leader LSU 8-1 to set up a Sunday rubber game at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

Henderson's seat is no longer hot. He's proved his critics wrong.

Now, Joker Phillips finds himself in a similar spot.

He just finished his third spring practice as Kentucky's football coach. He's coming off a losing season. The fans/fanatics don't think he's up to the task. His predecessor, Rich Brooks, produced. After moving from assistant to the top spot, Phillips has not. Restless are the fans.

Can Joker Phillips prove his critics wrong?

A crowd of 2,625 braved the cold, damp weather and took in the baseball Saturday afternoon at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Saturday night, a crowd of 4,500 braved similar conditions to see the spring game at Commonwealth Stadium.

They saw quarterback Maxwell Smith complete 29 of 45 passes for 353 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. What they didn't see was the sophomore beat himself up afterward.

Smith wasn't happy with the way he played. Neither was offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.

That's actually a good thing. Smith made some impressive throws. He made some good plays. Instead of trying to oversell that, however, the coaches harped on his mistakes.

"Max did some things," Sanders said, "he hasn't done all spring."

They know he's capable of more. He's not last year's green freshman forced into service. Mistakes were excused then. Not now. Smith is good enough to win in this league. He knows that. They know that. They're going to hold him accountable to that.

What Smith needs is some weapons. Saturday night, we saw a few.

Demarco Robinson is one. The sophomore receiver caught nine balls for 146 yards and two touchdowns. One score was a grab of beauty, a complicated catch in traffic in the end zone.

"He's made a play every time out here," said Phillips.

Redshirt freshman receiver Darryl Collins caught a couple of nice slant passes. Veteran LaRod King didn't even play after tweaking a knee in practice. And the tight ends looked much improved.

Ronnie Shields showed why he has earned spring praise. Anthony Kendrick caught a couple of nice balls for the second team. Tyler Robinson made five catches.

Offensive line depth is an issue. Phillips said he hopes he can survive with five guys, then he admitted that won't happen. Cross your fingers.

Defensively, coordinator Rick Minter wasn't happy. He's a bottom-line guy. The defense gave up 49 points Saturday, by his estimation. Too many points in his mind.

And yet, linebacker Avery Williamson had a solid spring. Minter bragged on Alvin Dupree. Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph had their moments. Phillips bragged on safety Martavius Neloms. He said converted running back Marcus Caffey would start at corner if the Cats lined up for a game tomorrow.

"We're going to be a young defense," Minter said. "We know that."

The fans know that, too. On both sides of the ball. They're not expecting miracles. They're not expecting a Gary Henderson-type turnaround, when a team goes from 8-22 in the best conference in America (the SEC) one year to, to 12-5 and a No. 3 ranking (by Baseball America) the next.

What they do want is a reason to believe. They want hope for the future. They want progress. They want a reason to keep buying tickets.

They want to see the head coach prove his critics wrong.

Come fall, time for a rally.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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