UK Football

Joker Phillips hopes football Cats respond to fan presence at Blue-White game

Head coach Joker Phillips walked between groups practicing on Wednesday March 21, 2012 on the opening day of the University of Kentucky's spring football practice at the Nutter training Center in Lexington.  Photo by David Perry | Staff
Head coach Joker Phillips walked between groups practicing on Wednesday March 21, 2012 on the opening day of the University of Kentucky's spring football practice at the Nutter training Center in Lexington. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

Kentucky's spring practices mostly were closed to outsiders.

Fans were kept out. Media were given limited access.

But the few times Coach Joker Phillips let outsiders in, he saw a different Kentucky team.

"They become upbeat; they concentrate a little bit more; it's probably one of the better practices we've had this spring," Phillips said after a recent practice in front of 50 high school coaches there for a clinic. "A lot of it had to do with having people here."

After seeing his team rise to the occasion, Phillips wondered if maybe he should have had more open practices.

The head coach wasn't the only one who saw a different pep in the UK players' cleated steps when there were people watching.

"When the news cameras are around, we seem to practice better," running backs coach Steve Pardue confirmed. "I'm going to hire someone to start coming around with a dummy camera."

If what they say is true, then Kentucky could have its best practice yet on Saturday for the annual Blue-White game.

Some of the players confirmed that they're a little sharper, a little more invested when they know that fans are watching.

"I wish they could be out here every day and see us," said Ronnie Shields, whom coaches said separated himself from the cluster of players vying for the tight end spot this spring. "I don't like to let the fans down or have them see us do bad. We like the pressure to perform at a high level."

On Saturday, the starters on offense and defense (white) will face off against the second-string players (blue), spotting them 14 points on the Commonwealth Stadium scoreboard to start.

"I hope it goes well and we can erase that 14-point deficit quick and win the game," starting quarterback Maxwell Smith said on Friday, Kentucky's final practice (in pads and shorts) before the scrimmage on Saturday.

"We always look forward to it," the quarterback continued. "We're ready to get out there and play Louisville, but first I'm excited for the spring game."

The quarterback, who has gotten all of the repetitions with the first team this spring as senior Morgan Newton recovers from shoulder surgery, said he feels good after UK's first 14 practices of the season.

"I'm getting better every day," he said. "I definitely know that. ... I feel like we're going to be able to show the fans some stuff and hopefully score a lot of touchdowns."

Smith was one of a handful of players singled out by Phillips, who is looking for guys with big-play potential.

In fact, if fall football started this weekend, Smith would be the starter, Phillips said.

"I'd feel really comfortable with him being that guy," Phillips said of Smith, who started three games late last season for UK, finishing with 819 yards and four touchdowns.

"There's no doubt he's gotten better. But again, we saw improvement in our quarterbacks last year, but we've got to take it from the practice field to the game field. He's proven that he can go in and play in the (Southeastern Conference) and win games for us. Now he's got to take it to another level."

The spring has been positive for many players on the roster, especially the younger players like Smith, who will be called on to play bigger roles this season, Phillips said.

"We've gotten a lot better from day one," he said. "We ought to get better because we're so young at a lot of positions. We've got a lot of reps invested in those young guys. We expected to get better in 14 of 15 practices because we're so young."


■ Brandon Gainer, a 5-foot-11 running back out of Miami, has decided to leave the Kentucky program, spokesman Tony Neely said Friday afternoon. Out of high school Gainer was listed as the nation's 15th-best running back, but he never moved up the UK depth chart. He rushed 11 times for 39 yards last season in three games. Gainer sat out spring football practice this season to focus on academics.

Gainer becomes the eighth player to leave the program since the end of last season. Of the eight, only one, Ridge Wilson, was expected to see considerable playing time in 2012.

■ Kentucky will give away a poster commemorating the win over Tennessee to end last season at the Blue-White game as well as free roster cards at the stadium gates.

The poster features wide receiver/quarterback Matt Roark being carried off the field after UK broke the 26-game losing streak to the Vols.

■ UK athletics will have a surplus sale of team apparel on Saturday. The sale will include jerseys, polo shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies and other items at a bargain price.

■ The men's basketball national championship trophy will be on display (for photos and viewing) Saturday from 4-6 p.m. at the UK Alumni Association tent.

■ Fans can renew season tickets at the spring game at the stadium ticket office outside gate four from 4:30-6:30 p.m.

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