Putting a different twist on March Madness, the University of Kentucky kicks off spring football drills Wednesday.
The Wildcats will hold 14 practices before wrapping up with the Blue-White Scrimmage in Commonwealth Stadium on April 21 at 6 p.m. (The scrimmage is the only practice open to the public.)
Coming off a 5-7 season, Coach Joker Phillips said Tuesday that he is "excited about spring football beginning, especially with the way we finished off.
"... The way we played at Georgia, which came up short (a 19-10 loss), and also the way we played against Tennessee (a 10-7 win), the thing that makes you really excited is seeing those young guys out there flying around. When you look out there, there was a ton of young, true freshmen that were making plays for us on both sides of the football. The majority of them were on defense, but just getting back to see some of the young guys. So we're excited about getting back on the field as a football team and also excited about what Coach (Rock) Oliver has been doing in the weight room with some of these guys."
Phillips said quarterback Morgan Newton will not throw during spring drills as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery.
Maxwell Smith is atop the depth chart at quarterback, and Jacob Russell is next. Russell is a redshirt sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from Eastern Kentucky. He is "a guy we kept talking about in fall camp last year; actually the whole season last year," Phillips said. "He's done a good job this off-season. A hard-working guy. A guy that lives in the film room. A really good weight-room guy.
"Morgan will be in the drills. He will not throw. He'll hand off. He'll do our inside drills and those things. So we really have three quarterbacks in the spring, but with only two of them throwing."
Another quarterback will try to absorb it all.
Patrick Towles, the Cats' coveted quarterback recruit from Highlands, will be on hand often to observe.
"One of the things that I've always done as a coordinator is just trying to spit out plays to a quarterback so he can give it back to me," Phillips said. "See how fast. Because a lot of the verbiage is the hardest thing that the kid has to learn. The power play is the power play, regardless. The outside zone is the outside zone. The inside zone, inside zone. Now, how do we say it? That's the thing that we'll work on with Patrick, just him repeating some of the calls.
"He doesn't have to know them right now. He just needs to understand how to give them back to us. That helps your confidence in the huddle. That helps you sell the play."
In addition to Newton, the injury report includes:
■ Collins Ukwu, DE (labrum surgery), will miss drills.
■ Josh Clemons, TB (knee), "will be a guy that we'll have to watch closely," Phillips said.
■ Tristian Johnson, DT (shoulder), will be limited to drills.
■ Gene McCaskill, WR (knee), will be evaluated day-to-day.
■ Joe Mansour, P (strep throat), will miss at least the opening day.
In addition, center Matt Smith will miss Wednesday practices as he fulfills a student-teaching obligation.
On those days, Phillips said, Larry Warford will move from right guard to center. Left guards Zach West and Teven Eatmon-Nared will get some first-unit work at right guard.
With strength and conditioning coach Oliver running things in the weight room, Phillips noted how several players have bulked up, and a few trimmed some fat.
For example, on the offensive line, Darrian Miller is up to 306 pounds "and looks like a left tackle in this league's supposed to look like," Phillips said.
On the defensive line, Mister Cobble is 332, "which is down," Phillips said, "but a guy that can hold point for us and plays really good with his hands and leverage."
Phillips said he'll be looking for playmakers at receiver, for more consistency at quarterback and for either Mansour or Jay Wilmott to succeed Ryan Tydlacka as punter.
Then there's the question of who takes the spot vacated by Danny Trevathan, who led the Southeastern Conference in tackles last season.
"We've got to find out if Avery Williamson or (Malcolm) McDuffen can replace Danny Trevathan. ... We've got to replace him," Phillips said. "That's no knock on Danny because he's done an outstanding job. But we've got to replace him."