The Kentucky football team is past the point of worrying about hurt feelings.
The Wildcats have lost two games in a row leading up to what could be a season-defining three-game homestand. UK has several issues that need to be addressed, and Coach Joker Phillips says there can be no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Receiver Randall Cobb was so upset after the 42-35 loss at Mississippi that he blew off the post-game media session.
"I'm pissed off," Cobb said. "I'm practicing pissed off and I'm going to play pissed off this week. I'm sick of losing. We've lost two straight, and I'm going to motivate my teammates however I can this week for them to play with a pissed-off attitude."
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Last week, several players spoke of the difficulty that often comes with trying to be a leader. Some players are more thin-skinned than others when handling criticism.
"That's part of life," Cobb said. "You're not always going to get praise. You're going to get your feelings hurt. You've got to be a man, take it, and change, or we'll find somebody else to replace you."
Phillips and defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said after Tuesday's practice that they noticed more players stepping up and taking charge.
"The guy beside you is holding you accountable for not executing; in that, I think our guys had a good practice," Phillips said. "Usually when you see a screw-up it's like, 'It's all right.' It is not all right. We had that type of temperament today. It's not all right to drop the football. It's not all right to get out of your gap. It's not all right to miss a tackle."
"There were some people today that actually surprised me by coming up to me and saying, 'Let's go; I'm tired of losing,' " Lumpkin said. "That's what you need to hear. Not just a couple of people. It was a group effort today. (Cornerback) Martavius (Neloms) had a play on a guy but didn't wrap him up, and nobody had to say anything. He realized what he did wrong, and he corrected himself in front of everybody. That's what we need. Hopefully it's not a one-day thing."
Phillips said constructive criticism can be more effective when it comes from the players instead of the coaches.
"They listen to each other better than they do us at times," Phillips said. "There will be times when I'll say, 'Hey, Randall, you need to grab this team and say this.' It has a little bit more pop when it's coming from one of the players."
Even as a freshman, Cobb wasn't afraid to speak his mind in practice or meetings, and Phillips said that can ruffle feathers with veterans.
"That usually happens when a guy has been around here a long time and a young guy comes in here and tries to lead," Phillips said. "I don't worry about that. I tell our guys, you don't have to be a senior to be a leader here, and we don't want that attitude, that a young guy can't tell you because he hasn't been through it. If he's on this football team, he's been through enough. It happened a lot when Randall Cobb came in here as a freshman. Now there's 69 guys listening when Randall Cobb speaks."
Phillips sees a lot of Cobb in freshman Raymond Sanders, who didn't take long to make his presence felt after arriving in Lexington over the summer. Sanders said he got some crazy looks from older players at times.
"They're always like, 'Who are you talking to?' " Sanders said. "But it's just natural for me to try and lead and push my teammates to get better. I like to lead my team, and I want to win. I talked with Coach Phillips the other day, and he told me, 'Just because you're a freshman doesn't mean you have to be scared to lead.' I've followed Cobb and Locke and everyone else trying to learn, paying attention to my peers, so hopefully I can lead this team soon."
"It's hard as a young guy to get veterans to pay attention," Cobb said. "But at least you get it out there. They might not like it, they might not listen to you, but it'll at least be in the back of their minds, and it might eventually have some effect. I think it's great what Raymond is trying to do. That shows where this program is going and that we have another great leader for the future."
Kentucky has also had off-the-field issues. Phillips has had to suspend several defensive regulars for disciplinary reasons. Defensive end DeQuin Evans was late to a meeting and sat out the first series against Louisville. Safety Winston Guy missed the meeting altogether and sat out the first quarter. Defensive tackle Mark Crawford was suspended from the Western Kentucky game for violating team rules. Linebacker Danny Trevathan missed the opening quarter of the Florida game, and fellow linebacker Ronnie Sneed was benched for the first quarter against Ole Miss.
Lumpkin said the one-quarter suspensions need to cease.
"Guys shouldn't be missing the first quarter for anything, especially missing meetings or practice," he said. "That's just immaturity. I mean, that stuff happens, but at the same time, those are key players we need and hopefully that's out of our system."
Coaches often make players run extra for such transgressions, but Phillips said taking away playing time is the most effective method of discipline.
"We're trying to teach them more than football," Phillips said. "Running a guy, a kid, in today's world, they can run all day. I mean, as big as Mark Crawford is, running him for violating the team rules doesn't do much for him. If you don't do what you're supposed to do, we're going to take quarters (of playing time) from you, simple as that. I'm not into running a guy because he missed. I used to do that back when I was a younger coach and watch a kid run all day and get him up at 5:00 and run him, and the only person that was hurting was me. It did nothing to him."
Phillips said he didn't know whether the players were testing him, but he said he has no plans on caving in.
"We've got way too many leaders on our football team that this is happening to, and I'm not sure that they truly understand that we will take these type of measures," he said. "But I think they're starting to get the message. I'm not going to give in to what I believe, and this is one of the things that I truly believe in, I really do."
Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for Saturday's game against Auburn at Commonwealth Stadium. Tickets are $46 and available online at www.UKathletics.com; at the UK Ticket Office in the Joe Craft Center; or by calling 800-928-2287.