The Kentucky football team only has two real practices between now and Saturday's opener at Louisville. The first item on the agenda is to freshen up — several regulars have missed practices with various bumps and bruises. And judging from Joker Phillips' reaction to the team's final scrimmage over the weekend, the Wildcats also need to sharpen up before heading up I-64.
Among the players in the rotation who have missed one or more practices because of injury are receivers Chris Matthews, Brian Adams and La'Rod King; defensive linemen DeQuin Evans, Ricky Lumpkin and Collins Ukwu; linebacker Danny Trevathan; and cornerback Martavious Neloms.
But Phillips said the only person who's currently in danger of missing the game is projected starting tight end Nick Melillo, who's battling a sprained ankle. Redshirt freshman Jordan Aumiller would start if Melillo can't play.
"I'm not worried about (injuries)," Phillips said. "It's all typical bumps and bruises you have this time of the season. ... We usually have some of the same things. We've had more (injuries) this year because we've had such a physical camp."
Phillips has been careful with receiver Randall Cobb and running back Derrick Locke because of their overall value to the team, but Locke said practices still haven't been easy.
"By far this is the hardest camp I've ever had in my life," Locke said earlier this week. "It's crazy how physical we've been. Coach Joker's not playing. When he says we're going to have tough people out there and be physical, he means we're going to have tough people out there and being physical. Practice has changed. The intensity is through the roof. Guys are getting banged up because of how hard we're going in practice."
Phillips did try and scale back during the team's final scrimmage and was not pleased with the results, feeling that the team lost focus and intensity because of limited contact. UK will take Monday off, then practice in full pads on Tuesday and Wednesday before the usual Thursday walk-through, and now Phillips has to find a way to fine-tune while at the same time keeping the team fresh. Phillips expects many players who have been out of action to return by Tuesday or Wednesday.
"We've got to a better job of getting them mentally prepared," Phillips said. "The tempo's got to pick up because (the game) is going to be a lot faster. We tried to slow the tempo down because we were trying to save legs, but next week we've got to pick the tempo up."
One thing Phillips and the UK staff will be looking for this week in practice is more leadership. Defensive line coach David Turner spent several minutes with Evans and Lumpkin stressing that very point after the lousy practice on Saturday.
"We really don't have a lot of vocal leaders," Lumpkin said. "That's something we have to work on. We need to put our foot down more. We have a lot of leaders by example, but that doesn't help at practice. We have to actually yell and get after people. Not really jump down their throat, but let them know, 'Hey, this is serious.' "
UK already had to replace six starters on defense, and then lost two more projected starters (tackle Mister Cobble and cornerback Paul Warford) to academics. Throw in the injuries that have prevented the first team from practicing together much, and the Wildcat defense is an unknown at this point. When asked what to expect from the unit, Phillips said, "I have no idea. We haven't had all 11 guys play together in a long time over there. We've missed some guys we're counting on. The thing is, they'll be fresh so we hope they'll be fast."
Defensive coordinator Steve Brown said the one positive regarding the injuries has been the opportunity to get extended looks at the potential backups.
"You still have to get a read on the guys who have been practicing," Brown said. "If they can't do it, then you start getting a little nervous. A lot of (the starters) we're counting on to come back next Tuesday and be ready, but if something happens to them and all of a sudden you've got Player X coming in, it's like, 'Awww man, here we go.' "
Evans did return for the scrimmage Saturday, and Trevathan is expected to be fine for the Louisville game. Phillips doesn't expect the layoff to have a negative effect.
"Brett Favre just came into camp, right?" Phillips quipped. "Those guys know what's going on. ... We know Danny Trevathan is aggressive, he'll attack you. The same thing with DeQuin. We know those guys will be ready."