When Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips spoke at the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort on Monday as part of Black History Month, the first question he received from a member of the audience was about the origin of the nickname "Joker."
Phillips gave his usual response, explaining that the nickname was given to differentiate between he and his father, also named Joe, before noting, "That's one of the first two questions I usually get when I'm out speaking. People will ask me how I got the name Joker and they'll ask me about the quarterbacks."
Surprisingly, nobody in the audience asked Phillips about the upcoming three-man quarterback race between Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski, but it was brought up during a brief media session after Phillips, Louisville Coach Charlie Strong and Western Kentucky Coach Willie Taggart addressed the crowd.
Phillips said Hartline, Newton and Mossakowski will all get equal reps during the early part of spring and hopes to narrow it down to a two-man race by the fall.
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"It is a three-man race for sure," Phillips said. "We have two (Hartline and Newton) that won games in the SEC and a third one (Mossakowski) who we think is a guy who can compete and win in the SEC. We have to give people reps early and get it down to two as quickly as we can and if the separation is not big enough, then we will have to carry out the competition among those two in fall camp."
Mossakowski was redshirted in 2009 while recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum. Phillips said before the Music City Bowl that Mossakowski hadn't fully regained his arm strength. While in Frankfort, Phillips said that while he hasn't seen Mossakowski throw since the season ended, he still expects him to push Hartline and Newton in the spring.
"I expect him to be ready to compete," Phillips said. "From all indications from the players and the trainers, he is ready to go out and compete, and we just expect that from him. I have seen him in some drills but not the throwing drills. He looks good in the drills I have seen. Whether or not he is going full speed, we will see what happens in spring football."
Besides the quarterback position, the offensive line will be an area of interest in the spring as the Wildcats attempt to replace four starters from what was regarded as the best offensive line of the Rich Brooks era: left tackle Zipp Duncan, left guard Christian Johnson, center Jorge Gonzalez and right tackle Justin Jeffries.
Phillips noted that junior Brad Durham played a lot when Jeffries was injured, Matt Smith played basically the entire game at center against Miami (Ohio) when Gonzalez was suspended and Marcus Davis was lost to injury, and highly regarded freshman Larry Warford got action at both guard spots.
"We feel good about having guys up front, but now we have to see if we have guys who are willing to compete every down in the SEC," Phillips said.
Phillips said he's anxious for spring ball to begin and continues to ride his "Operation Win" theme. Spring practice begins March 31.
"I am so ready to coach some football," he said. "I am ready to see Operation Win come together. The first phase, which is recruiting, went well. We are doing a good job in the second phase, which is to build a program, and I am ready to see the third phase which is to see how we compete in spring football."
Five redshirts to watch
Continuing with our pre-spring list of things to watch for, here are five players who were redshirted in 2009 who will be worth watching in spring drills. Note: Redshirts Ryan Wallace and Qua Huzzie, who were mentioned in the "Five newcomers to watch" a couple of weeks ago, and Mossakowski, who was mentioned above, are not included on this list.
Mister Cobble: The coaching staff seriously considered playing this talented defensive tackle from Central High School last fall but resisted and managed to preserve his redshirt. With another Central product, Corey Peters, moving on to the NFL, Cobble should be in the mix at tackle in 2010. He's a little on the short side (listed at 6 feet), but he's a powerful 290-pounder with quick feet and a good motor.
Aaron Boyd: Boyd, the highest-ranked member of UK's 2008 signing class, has yet to make his mark as a Wildcat and was redshirted last fall after not making the rotation at receiver. The coaching staff hasn't given up on Boyd and hopes that after a year off to get his head right and work on his game that he can start reaching his potential.
E.J. Fields: Technically, Fields wasn't redshirted in 2009, but he's missed the past two seasons with hamstring and foot injuries. Fields could give the Cats some much-needed speed at the receiver position but has to prove that he can stay healthy. At the Black History Month presentation last week Phillips was asked about how much he expects Fields, a Frankfort native, to play this season.
"We will find out," he said. "He continues to grow up, (but) he is still a baby. That is what you all don't understand is that they might look like men, but they are babies. ... So we will find out this spring how many reps he will get and find out if he can go. He is such a good kid, he does well in the classroom and he will be successful whatever he does, but we just hope he has success this year in football, because we need him."
Jarvis Walker: This 6-foot-1, 206-pound prospect from Louisiana has ideal size, athleticism and hitting ability and should be a major contributor on special teams as well as competing at both safety spots.
Jonathan George: George was perhaps the most impressive of the three running backs UK signed in 2009 and appeared heading for playing time before suffering a high ankle sprain in fall camp. Derrick Locke and Moncell Allen figure to be the top two backs, but it's wide open after that. With Donald Russell and CoShik Williams in the mix and Raymond Sanders, Brandon Gainer and Miles Simpson arriving this summer, George will need to have a strong spring to stake his claim for carries.
Five UK players (defensive tackle Corey Peters, linebacker Micah Johnson, cornerback Trevard Lindley, linebacker Sam Maxwell and fullback John Conner) are in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. The players conducted interviews and dealt with the media Thursday and Friday. Conner is scheduled to work out Sunday, Peters, Johnson and Maxwell on Monday and Lindley on Tuesday.
Smith prepping for Pro Day
UK running back Alfonso Smith didn't receive an invitation to the combine but has been training in Cincinnati with Clif Marshall's Ignition program along with offensive lineman Justin Jeffries. Smith's senior season didn't go as well as he hoped, as he finished with 262 yards on 60 carries in mostly a reserve role. Smith's blazing speed should at least get him a few free-agent looks, and Marshall has a reputation for taking lesser-known prospects and improving their draft status. Last year, Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin ran a 4.37 40 at his Pro Day and was taken in the second round by the Houston Texans, and Ohio's Michael Mitchell was snubbed by the combine but had a great Pro Day workout and became a second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders.
Smith is hoping to run a sub-4.3 40 at UK's Pro Day on March 10 and put himself on the radar with scouts. He's also a special teams stalwart, which could also help him land on a roster.
"It's good to get a fresh start," Smith said. "I'm just trying to be positive. I didn't get a ton of carries my senior year, but on the bright side I'm not all banged up, either. I'm just looking forward to running a good time and showing the scouts that I'll do whatever it takes to make it. I'll even play defense if they want me to."
Lyons to give it another go
Former Wildcat Dicky Lyons Jr. has been training in Indianapolis and will work out for scouts at UK's Pro Day. Lyons suffered a major knee injury his senior year at UK that limited his preparation for last year's draft, but he still managed to sign a free-agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons before being released.
Now more than a year removed from knee surgery, Lyons is healthy and recently ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, according to Shawn Smith of XAM Sports and Entertainment Agency.