Kentucky-Florida notes: UK players speak of fondness for Joker

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 27, 2013 

Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips was carried off the field by center Matt Smith, left, and guard Larry Warford in his final game after Kentucky defeated Samford 34-3 in the Wildcats' home finale. Philips had been fired two weeks earlier. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

For so many Kentucky players, Joker Phillips will be remembered as the coach who gave them their first shot.

One was quarterback Maxwell Smith, who didn't get a scholarship offer until he got the call from Phillips, then the UK head coach.

For some, he's the coach who gave them second chances.

One was running back Raymond Sanders, who got his after an off-the-field incident last season.

And in some cases, even third chances.

Defensive tackle Donte Rumph needed several tries to get to UK as he struggled academically.

For almost all of them, Phillips was a good friend and now he'll be on the opposing sideline, less than 11 months removed from when he was carried off the Commonwealth Stadium field for the final time as head coach.

"I've still got love for Joker," junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree said of his former coach, who is now the wide receivers coach for No. 20 Florida.

"Coach Phillips has still got a place in all our hearts as a team as well as a program. Everyone over here loves Coach Phillips."

Every player asked this week said he planned to seek out the former Cats coach and check in with him at some point on Saturday.

"I'm very grateful for him and grateful for everything he's done for me," Sanders said. "That's why it's not like we're trying to use (his return) as fuel, because we're real grateful for the opportunities and things he's done for us."

But nearly all of the players admitted it was going to be strange seeing him in blue and orange.

It's bound to be odd for Phillips, too.

As a coach, assistant coach and player, he spent 23 seasons at Kentucky, including the last three as the head coach. Per Florida's rules, assistant coaches aren't allowed to speak with the media during the season.

Head coach Will Muschamp knows it will be difficult for Phillips, who was fired from UK last season.

"People don't realize the amount of time and effort we put in to what we do and giving our time to young people," Muschamp said. "And then the dedication to the administration and all the things involved with the university. And then, you're not there anymore for whatever reason. It takes a little part away from you."

Florida has leaned on Phillips a little bit for personnel preparation, but that's about it, Muschamp said.

UK Coach Mark Stoops downplayed how much a coach could help game plan a year removed.

"I guess it could help in certain ways, but I think we're a different team," Stoops said. "So I'm not really worried about that."

The new Cats coach also revealed he reached out to Phillips after he took over the program late last year.

"I called Joker just to say hello and touch base with him and talk with him a little bit," Stoops said. "I do not know Joker very well. I know him (enough) to just to say hi and talk to him a little bit, so we had a good conversation.

"He was very good and supportive and had a lot of good things to say about Kentucky."

He's still a part of Kentucky, the players said.

Sanders hopes the fans at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday remember that.

"I do hope they're respectful for him, but I also hope they're cheering for us and doing the best to cheer us on," the senior running back said. "You want them to show him that respect."

It also will be the first return to Commonwealth Stadium for UF offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who was offensive coordinator at Kentucky in 2001 and 2002.

'Just end it, that's it'

Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown was in first grade the last time the Cats beat Florida.

It was in 1986, and the Gators' 26-game win streak over UK is the longest one in the nation for regular opponents.

Neither coach wanted much streak talk, with Muschamp adding "whatever the streak is, it doesn't matter. It only matters what we do on Saturday afternoon."

Stoops added: "Sure, I think it's motivation. I do. I think it needs to be talked about, but that can't be the focal point."

UK's Sanders, a senior running back, has been part of two landmark victories that ended ugly streaks — the 10-7 win in 2011 that ended Tennessee's 26-game hold on the Cats, and UK's first-ever victory over Steve Spurrier in 2010. He admitted it would be nice to end this streak as well.

"It would be something great to be a part of, to say that I ended three streaks that were going on here," he said. "To be a part of those teams is something special."

At least one other player seemed enthused about ending an ugly part of ongoing Kentucky history.

"Just end it, that's it," sophomore cornerback Cody Quinn said. "Just go out here and end it. Give it everything you've got for all four quarters and make something happen that hasn't been done in 26 years."

Pressure new QB Murphy

Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy has been quietly waiting his turn to run the Gators offense and his chance came last week after starter Jeff Driskel's season ended because of a broken leg.

It meant Murphy, who had never completed a pass at Florida, was thrust into the game against Tennessee and will earn his first start on the road at Kentucky.

"I'll have butterflies, I'm sure," Murphy said this week. "I'll be anxious, but, you know, I'll get out there and maybe complete my first pass. Once I get hit, I think I'll be fine. But I don't think it will be as bad as it was this week."

Against the Volunteers, the 6-foot-2, redshirt junior completed eight of 14 pass attempts for 134 yards and a score.

Kentucky said its defensive game plan doesn't change much with Murphy in the game. The Cats coaches are expecting a few more wrinkles, more built-in Wildcat packages, but nothing too crazy.

"We're alert to his skills, but our preparation doesn't change," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

Going against its own dual-threat quarterback Jalen Whitlow has been good preparation, players and coaches said. And playing well against a Heisman Trophy contender two weeks ago certainly helped.

"Being that (Louisville's) Teddy Bridgewater will probably be the No. 1 quarterback in the draft next year and we did a good job on him ... we've got a lot of confidence from that game," Dupree said.

The Florida coach expressed a similar kind of confidence in his new quarterback.

"He may have a couple more butterflies here and there as far as starting the game, but other than that, he's a pretty calm, cool, collected guy as you saw on Saturday," Muschamp said. "He'll handle it like a champion."

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

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