John Clay: Cats totally reliant on youth, for good or bad

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 11, 2012 

Reciever Demarco Robinson, cut upfield after a reception during the Blue-White scrimmage on Saturday April 21, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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DeMarco Robinson is a sophomore. Daryl Collins is a redshirt freshman. Darrian Miller is a sophomore. Maxwell Smith is a sophomore. Dyshawn Mobley is a true freshman. Zach West is a redshirt freshman. Josh Clemons is a sophomore.

Those guys are on offense.

Bud Dupree is a sophomore. Ashely Lowery is a sophomore. Miles Simpson is a sophomore. Pancho Thomas is a true freshman. Josh Forrest is a redshirt freshman. Khalid Henderson is a true freshman. Malcolm McDuffen is a sophomore.

Those guys are on defense.

Landon Foster is a true freshman.

He's the probable punter.

Hanging around the Kentucky football camp this first week of practice, and after Saturday's scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium, those are the names you hear.

Some are familiar, some are not. Some made their way into games last year as true freshmen, some did not. Some have a few battle scars, most are as green as the stadium grass.

Yet those are the names to have hopes about this upcoming UK football season.

Joker Phillips was asked Friday if this is the youngest team he has ever coached.

The head coach answered with the type of quickness he has been associating with the wide receiver/kick returner DeMarco Robinson.

"Definitely," he said.

Thing is, the SEC is an unforgiving training ground.

"I'd like to be where we were at this point in 2010," said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders on Saturday, "when we had a senior quarterback, two senior receivers, senior fullback, senior tailback and a pretty experienced offensive line. We're not quite there yet, but I like the track we're on."

The problem for this Kentucky football team is the class gap. Blame it on poor recruiting. Blame it on incorrect evaluations. Blame it on bad luck. Whatever the reason, the junior and senior classes are not the ones that will not make or break this football season.

It's no secret that the most talented classes begin with the third-year sophomores and work their way down through the true freshman class. That incorporates the three classes signed since Phillips became the head coach.

There was a reason why Phillips, after being promoted from offensive coordinator to replace the retiring Rich Brooks, shook up the staff in the name of improving recruiting.

"I went back and looked at the 2006 team and we had 24 freshmen and sophomores before the freshmen even came on campus," said Phillips on Friday, referencing the team that started the string of five straight bowl games. "And (true freshman) Braxton Kelly ended up being one of those starters also."

Of the 46 players listed on the two-deep depth chart coming out of this year's spring practice, 27 are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. That doesn't include true freshmen.

That gives the impression of a program building for the future, with a staff that needs to play for the present.

You've read the season ticket sales numbers. Down 27 percent from a year ago. Whichever way you want to slice the UK-U of L ticket drama this past week, simple fact is Louisville fans bought the available tickets for the Sept. 2 game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Kentucky fans did not.

Still, a coach must play his best players, no matter the age. He may wish they were juniors and seniors, ones with experience, ones who have already turned the learning curve. But that's not always the way it works out.

Sometimes you have to go with youth and see where the chips fall.

"Coach (Randy) Sanders says some of them don't know how to dress themselves," Phillips said. "It will be a young football team, but a young, fiery, talented football team."

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

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