The University of Kentucky receiving corps were probably the unofficial whipping boys of the 2008 season.
The UK offense often struggled to get off the ground last fall, and a lot of finger pointing was directed at Joker Phillips' unit.
"We heard it from everybody," said freshman Eric Adeyemi. "You just tried to stay humble and tune it out."
That led to a tense atmosphere at times.
"We were taking a lot of heat, Coach (Phillips) was taking a lot of heat, the coaches were mad at us, and we were all yelling," sophomore receiver Kyrus Lanxter said. "There was a lot of pressure."
Phillips views that criticism as unfair and pointed out that he was forced to play five true freshman receivers, which is practically unheard of. And while part-time quarterback/wide receiver Randall Cobb was the only other pass-catcher besides Dicky Lyons Jr. to make much of an impact, Phillips still says he'll have a solid group of receivers before all is said and done.
"They were getting beat up by everybody: me, Coach Brooks, the fans, the media, their friends," Phillips said. "You look back and say, man, I wish I could have redshirted those guys. But we didn't have the liberty to do that. They had to play. Who were we going to line up with? And we went through some growing pains. We tried to reiterate to them, 'Hey, Dicky wasn't ready to play as a freshman. Very few are. But before these guys are done, there will be some secondaries in the SEC going through some growing pains because of what these guys will have done on the field."
The word around UK camp is that things are looking up so far this spring. The consensus is that the unit started to make a positive turn during practices for the Liberty Bowl in December. Those results showed up in the 25-19 win over East Carolina: Lanxter caught five passes for 46 yards and a TD, the best performance all season by a receiver other than Lyons or Cobb. And freshman Gene McCaskill added three receptions for 64 yards.
Lanxter said the improvements shown by the receivers in the practices helped convince Phillips to open things up a little more. Quarterback Mike Hartline threw 31 passes in the bowl game.
"I think (Phillips) trusted us a little more," Lanxter said. "In the bowl game, we were taking more chances, and he was getting the ball in our hands and let us do things we had the potential to do all season."
Phillips and head coach Rich Brooks have seen some carryover from that Liberty Bowl performance so far this spring.
"You'd watch our practices last year and, even (in) one-on-one (drills), we couldn't complete a lot of passes, even against air," Brooks said. "Now the ball's not on the ground very often. The receivers are running better routes. They're coming out, the ball's there, and they're catching it. We're still in the process of trying to develop a rotation of who's going to start, be the backups and third, fourth and fifth guys, but we're light years ahead of where we were at the start of last fall."
Lanxter said Phillips has stressed three things to the unit — effort: run to the ball on every play with no loafing; intelligence: no missed assignments; and toughness. Lanxter senses a commitment to those requests so far this spring.
"We're working much harder, and we have more confidence," Lanxter said. "The coaches aren't yelling as much. We've all stepped up."