After a rough October and early November, the Kentucky football team finally has some good vibes going into its open date this week.
The Cats have a modest two-game winning streak, and though neither win was over a powerhouse (Charleston Southern and Vanderbilt), the tone in the locker room following a 38-20 win over Vandy was a far cry from the somber mood of the previous six weeks.
Now UK is bowl-eligible and will have a week to prepare to end its 25-game losing streak to Tennessee on Nov. 27.
Joker Phillips is like most coaches in that he'd rather have an open date toward the middle of the season, but he's not complaining. "It's much needed right now, I can tell you that," he said. "We'd like to have it in there right in the middle, but we'll take it right now.
And it's good to have an open date after a win, too."
Another good sign is that tailback Derrick Locke didn't seem to have any ill effects returning to the lineup after a four-game absence due to a shoulder injury. Locke finished with 145 yards on 22 carries.
"He felt good this morning, so he's fine," Phillips said. "We'll work some these next couple of weeks to get him some contact, but not a lot.
"With two weeks before the (Tennessee) game, the thing we've got to do is get him up to speed conditioning-wise. He felt good physically, but he's got to get his conditioning up."
UK also got a positive going into the Tennessee game with the re-emergence of senior defensive end DeQuin Evans. Evans, who has been slowed by ankle and shoulder injuries much of the season, had two tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks against Vandy.
"He's been beat up all year, and I think we saw for the first time this year a healthy DeQuin Evans," Phillips said. "He was active in the game and made a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage for us."
Assuming the Cats get into a bowl, they will get the benefit of extra December practices. That process will actually get going this week. Phillips will use the bye week to evaluate several true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and members of the travel squad who haven't gotten a lot of game reps.
Redshirt freshman Dakota Tyler started the second half at safety in place of Mychal Bailey and will get more looks.
"We didn't feel like we were getting great safety play, so we decided to make a change," Phillips said. "Dakotah, for a guy who hadn't had a lot of reps, played well. He's played good enough to play more."
Another player Phillips is anxious to get more work is true freshman cornerback Jerrell Priester. Priester had been touted as a guy who could crack the rotation this season but has seen virtually all of his action on special teams.
"He's got a lot of growing up to do in taking care of his business on and off the field, but this week we've got to see him, and getting these extra practices we'll get to see him even longer," Phillips said.
"He's going to be a good player for us, but got a lot of growing to do. This is a huge week for him getting reps."
Phillips said he expects to hear from the SEC office on Monday on whether sophomore Martavius Neloms will face a suspension after being ejected along with Vanderbilt's Umoh Udoh for exchanging blows in the fourth quarter.