The high-octane passing games in college football these days allow receivers to put up eye-popping numbers.
But Kentucky head coach for offense Joker Phillips is old school. Back when he played at UK under Jerry Claiborne (1981-84), a wide receiver would be lucky to catch 20 balls in a season. Phillips had 75 receptions during his career; Randall Cobb already has 53 with three games to go in his sophomore year.
Where receivers earned their keep in Phillips' day was as blockers, something Phillips constantly harps on with his current group of receivers.
"That's how I grew up," Phillips said. "When I played, you got more enjoyment out of springing a guy loose than you did making a play yourself. I really enjoyed watching George Adams and those guys get in the end zone, and that's what I try and instill in these guys here. It's like taking a charge in basketball. It's something you have to give up for the team. You can't just be a pass receiver. You have to be a physical guy."
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The receivers are reminded of the importance of blocking through three key elements Phillips picked up from Claiborne: 1. Stay square 2. Outside leverage. 3. Football position.
"We have to read it every time we walk in," junior receiver Chris Matthews said. "And in practice, the play might not even be going our way, but (Phillips) is still on us. In the end, though, it makes us better."
You could see Claiborne-era football written all over UK's bowl-clinching 24-13 win over Vanderbilt last week. With the Kentucky offense still trying to find its way in the passing game, Coach Rich Brooks and Phillips decided to keep the ball mostly on the ground, and it was the blocking on the perimeter by the receivers that helped tailback Derrick Locke get outside en route to a career-high 144 yards. Cobb chipped in 99 as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
Blocking on the edge is easier when the starting wideouts are 6-foot-5, 210 pounds (Matthews) and 6-4, 190 (La'Rod King).
"With big guys like Chris and La'Rod, all they have to do is cover you up, and it's hard for a (defensive back) to see around them," Phillips said.
"I don't think we've had receivers block as well as this group is doing on the perimeter," Brooks said. "With Matthews and La'Rod King, in the seven years I've been here, we haven't had two guys as physical and willing to block as those two."
The sight of a receiver the size of Matthews or King coming full speed around the corner to throw a block can get defensive backs on their heels.
"That's one of the hardest things to do as a cornerback, trying to shed a block out on the perimeter against a receiver," UK sophomore corner Randall Burden said. "Especially if he's a bigger receiver."
As much as technique is involved, blocking on the perimeter often comes down to a gut-check.
"It really comes down to who wants it more," Matthews said. "If you're a DB and you want it more, you're going to make that tackle. But if you're a receiver and you want that block that sets up that touchdown, you do what you have to do."
UK completed just seven passes against Vanderbilt, and Brooks and Phillips admitted that it can be a tough sell to get receivers to go all out blocking when they know they're not going to catch many balls.
"Sometimes it's difficult when you're dealing with guys whose identity is catching the ball and, when you're not throwing as much or it's not going to them, they kind of lose interest," Brooks said. "I've had that happen many years over my coaching career. To see these guys doing what I call the lunch-pail work, they've done a great job of it."
King said the UK receivers have learned to check their egos at the door.
"We'll have opportunities to catch balls," King said. "But we're willing to do whatever it takes to win. Our pride wasn't hurt at all."
Phillips added that receivers are more willing to block if the end results are positive.
"I think winning helps that," he said. "We only had four catches from our receivers (against Vanderbilt) but, after the game, everybody was whoopin' and hollerin' because we got the win."