UK football Notebook

UK football notebook: First practice fun for fans, not so much for Phillips

Herald-Leader Staff WriterAugust 4, 2012 

They came.

They saw.

They practiced.

That was about as detailed as Coach Joker Phillips could get after Kentucky's first practice of the season, which happened during Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium.

When the players are in shorts and haven't had any kind of instructional practice beforehand, it's difficult to get a feel for much of anything, the coach lamented.

"It's hard. It's hard to make any kind of conclusions based on especially the first shorts practice," he said. "We're just trying to get back into the flow. Guys start off fresh and don't understand how fast we want to go. But we'll get it the next couple practices."

Phillips expressed his displeasure that UK's Fan Day and that important first practice happened on the same day.

The events collided this season because of NCAA practice scheduling rules and the season opener at Louisville falling on a Sunday, UK spokesman Tony Neely said.

"I don't like our first practice to be Fan Day, but it was," Phillips said. "We got that out of the way. We've got to get better from this point forward."

The Cats will have one more day in shorts, then two days in shells before putting on pads for the first time.

In the seven-on- seven and 11-on-11 drills, the defense seemed to dominate, picking off every quarterback at least once, some twice. But don't read too much into that, the coach warned.

"You've got to throw it to the right colored jersey," Phillips said, "but again, first day trying to understand the speed of the game again, get acclimated to that."

Senior quarterback Morgan Newton completed several long passes and looked healthy coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder.

"It's good to have him out here because there's a competition at quarterback," Phillips said of his once starter. "I really like how young (Patrick) Towles had command of the ball and how he commanded the huddle."

But again, it's difficult to know what he saw, Phillips said.

"We're still in shorts; this is really flag football right now," he quipped.

SEC-size chip?

Commitments are made. Commitments are broken. It's life in big-time college football, especially in the Southeastern Conference.

For at least two of Kentucky's freshmen, a less than happy ending with another SEC school could turn out to be a big positive for the Cats.

Linebacker Khalid Henderson and running back Justin Taylor had yearlong courtships and commitments with other schools. Henderson was all set to go to Tennessee, and Taylor was headed to Alabama.

But Henderson, a 6-1, 220-pounder from Mableton, Ga., said that after more than a year committed to the Vols, his relationship with Coach Derek Dooley "went a little soft."

"Mostly, they didn't think I was up to par," Henderson told Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story on Friday. "Which was dumbfounding to me. I was like, 'I'm a 4-star recruit on ESPN. How am I not up to par?' But I found a good relationship with Coach Phillips and the rest of the staff. I just went from there. I trusted them, and I came to Kentucky."

Even though his commitment with Tennessee was firm in November when UK ended the Vols' 26-year victory streak against Kentucky, Henderson remembers being impressed with the scrappy Cats.

"I saw how Danny (Trevathan) and Winston (Guy) went off and how Matt (Roark) took control of the game in his hands," he said.

For Taylor, a 5-10, 215-pound back from Atlanta, a knee injury late in his senior season had Alabama asking him to delay his enrollment until January, a process called grayshirting.

Stanley Pritchett, Taylor's guardian and a former SEC and NFL back, said he trusted Kentucky's coaches.

"We felt comfortable with them, and they promised to take care of Justin," Pritchett told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. "I think everything turned out well, ultimately. I wanted him to go to college right now because when you're the first person in your family to graduate from high school, you don't need to be sitting out."

Taylor seemed pleased to be trading his crimson and white for blue and white.

But what did he do with all that Tide gear?

"I gave it away," he said. "A lot of people like Alabama, so I just gave it away."

Fresh perspective

There's been a lot of talk about how much, if at all, Highlands quarterback Patrick Towles can contribute as a freshman in the SEC.

Lots of people asked him, so I asked other people instead. Towles has amazing credentials.

The 6-foot-5, 242-pounder came out of high school with a 38-1 record as a starter, including three state championships. He passed for 7,429 yards and 73 TDs, and ran for 1,718 yards and 38 scores in his career. As a senior, he threw for 3,820 yards and 42 touchdowns with just one pick.

But the best quarterback in the world would have a few struggles making the jump from high school to college.

"Learning the offense shouldn't be that difficult," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said earlier this summer, saying no decisions would be made on the freshman QBs, including often overlooked Jalen Whitlow. "You can take it home and study it every night before you go to bed.

"The hard part is the sheer volumes, and learning to react to the sheer volumes of defenses they see. When you have to recognize the defenses and be able to respond to them and do it in 21/2 to three seconds before you get sacked, that becomes the difficult part. How well he's able to manage that stuff, and adapt and do things will really determine where he's at."

Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who will get first team repetitions to start fall camp, said there's no way to prepare a freshman quarterback for life in the SEC.

"It's difficult. It's very difficult," Smith said Friday. "I learned that last year. The speed is just so much different. ... Those teams were extremely fast, and you can't really prepare for it at all."

Smith's SEC wake-up call came at Louisiana State last season when he suffered a freak injury thanks to a sack by a Tigers defender. "I actually sprained my face against LSU," he said.

A Cat from the past

This is the first in an occasional series looking at former Kentucky players and where they are now.

Football can prepare a man for just about anything.

It definitely was good preparation for former Kentucky linebacker Ronnie Riley (1998-2002), who once found himself side by side with some of the nation's elite military minds.

"To be able to react the first time somebody gives you choice words was definitely similar to being on the field," Riley said of his position as executive communications specialist for two high-ranking Army generals. "When you're in the heat of anything, there's not time for tact."

For two years starting in 2008, Riley traveled the world, coordinating worldwide communications for Army generals.

"Basically, we'd coordinate every aspect of communications, be it classified or unclassified, whether on terrain or in the air or in the desert in Afghanistan or Kuwait or Iraq," he said.

His travels took him to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq and South Korea, many times wearing a terrestrial satellite on his back like football pads.

"There's no Internet out there," he said. "I carried around a satellite on my back in a backpack. We use those to help achieve communication. ... I made sure we were in touch with everyone we needed to be in touch with."

He'd often have to keep quiet about where he was going and what he was doing when talking with family and friends. He'd tell them he was leaving town for a while and when he expected to be back.

Riley, 32, left that position for his current one in November 2010, when he became program manager for veteran outreach in the secretary of defense's office.

In his new job, he coordinates hundreds of education and employment activities for veterans who are transitioning out of the service. He often works for and with young people who were about his age when he was a football standout at Kentucky.

"It's rewarding," he said of his job. "A lot of the individual stories are touching. When these young men and women go into the service, they have full intention of doing what it takes for their country, but once they get out, there's a different reality waiting for them. So we kind of help them embrace that reality."

If you know of a former UK player doing something special or interesting or want to know what happened to a Cat from the past, please contact me.

The information below tells you how.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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