Joker demands physical football

With better depth at every position than some of his predecessors enjoyed, UK Coach Joker Phillips made the decision to crank up the physical play in fall camp.
With better depth at every position than some of his predecessors enjoyed, UK Coach Joker Phillips made the decision to crank up the physical play in fall camp.

Back in the Air Raid Days, back when passes were zinging through the friendly skies, Kentucky's fall camp treated football as a non-contact sport.

"A car wreck," was what then-coach Hal Mumme called Saturday games, and saw no reason to put his team through a lot of unnecessary violence in the days leading up to the collisions that really counted.

When Guy Morriss, an old NFL lineman, took over from Mumme in 2001, he raised the physical ante a bit. When Rich Brooks arrived in 2003, the ex-Oregon coach and ex-NFL head coach and defensive coordinator tried to mix a dash of moderation with the hard knocks.

But then, after last season, Joker Phillips took over as head coach. And Joker wasn't joking around.

"This is the most physical camp I've ever been through," said defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin.

"I'd say it's definitely been more physical," said offensive guard Stuart Hines. "We've had a lot of guys in the training room."

Why, leading up to your season opener against Louisville, would you make matters physical, at the risk of losing players to injury?

"We made it a physical camp because we felt like that's what we had to do to take this to the next level," Phillips said on Tuesday, four days before Kentucky travels to Louisville. "We had three goals. One is to graduate our players. Another is to be a physical football team. And the third is to win the East."

Years past, Kentucky-Louisville could have been construed as a finesse festival. Both teams boasted standout quarterbacks and offensive weapons. Both teams were often accused of de-emphasizing defense.

But now Charlie Strong, a former defensive coordinator, is the Louisville head coach. Strong just looks tough himself with those bulging biceps. He's made toughness and physical play a hallmark of his first U of L camp.

Phillips may have the background of an offensive guy. He's been a wide receivers coach and an offensive coordinator. He's called plays in a high-octane offense designed to throw the football. But he has shown the ability to get down and dirty when the situation calls for down and dirty.

Example: The 2006 Music City Bowl. Kentucky was playing Clemson in Nashville. Star Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams was giving the UK offensive line trouble early. Or at least Gaines did until Phillips stressed to his offense that it had to go for Adams' legs. Gaines, who tragically died this past January at age 26, was a non-factor the rest of the game. Kentucky won 28-20.

"The only way you can reach (the goal of being a physical team) is playing and preaching being physical," Phillips said Tuesday. "That's the reason why we wanted to make it a physical camp."

Look at UK's two biggest wins last year. The Cats' physical offensive line took it to Auburn in the second half of a 21-14 upset win over the Tigers. At Georgia, physical play helped the Cats rally from a 27-13 third-quarter deficit to win 34-27.

To build on that, Phillips called for a faster tempo at fall practice.

"I think any time you pick up the tempo it makes it more physical," said defensive coordinator Steve Brown.

Of course, Phillips has one advantage that eluded some of his predecessors. Even if a UK coach wanted a physical training camp, he might be afraid that injuries would cripple a team that lacked depth. That was especially true for Brooks, who operated under scholarship restrictions.

"It's definitely helped, the numbers we have at every position," Phillips said.

Just as the Cats think their physical approach will help Saturday at Papa John's.

"As far as how that has affected the offensive line," Hines said. "I think we're more prepared to really fire off the ball and get physical with Louisville when we play Saturday."

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