UK Football

Joker Phillips: Kentucky's youthful squad doesn't understand what it faces

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Joker Phillips walked off the field as  Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 27-14   on Saturday October 6, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach Joker Phillips walked off the field as Mississippi State defeated Kentucky 27-14 on Saturday October 6, 2012 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

The plane taking the Kentucky football team to Arkansas on Friday easily could double as a KinderCare bus.

Coach Joker Phillips joked as much this week, asking whether the UK Radio Network sideline reporter would help strap the young players into their seats.

The coach was only slightly exaggerating.

When the Cats travel to Arkansas, they'll be doing it with 68 players instead of the standard 70. Injuries have made the pool of available players that small.

Of those 68 players, 42 are sophomores or younger.

On defense, the numbers are even more staggering: 23 of the 30 players making the trip are freshmen or sophomores.

Included on the injury list are safeties Martavius Neloms (hamstring), Mikie Benton (ankle) and Ashely Lowery (concussion-like symptoms), Phillips announced Thursday.

Three-fourths of the Cats' starting secondary will be true freshmen in cornerback Cody Quinn and twin safeties Zack and Daron Blaylock. Previously slated for a redshirt season, Zack Blaylock got into his first collegiate game last week against Mississippi State.

In Arkansas, the young secondary will face the Southeastern Conference's second-best passing team, averaging 301.3 yards a game and 11 touchdowns.

Against the pass this season, UK is allowing 209 yards a game and has allowed eight touchdowns (middle of the pack in the SEC).

The only backups available at safety are Eric Dixon (who has played in the last two games but hasn't recorded a tackle) and freshman walk-on Cody Lewis, Phillips confirmed on Thursday.

If Lewis gets on the field Saturday, he would help UK tie for No. 1 in the nation for most true freshmen used in a season. The Cats are third in the nation in most total freshmen used (26).

The biggest loss for Kentucky this week might be Neloms, who is third on the team in tackles and an important defensive leader.

"You lose a lot," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said when asked about the senior's absence. "You don't replace those guys, not with a true freshman. So you've got to be careful with what you do, how much you can do. The guys who aren't out there are security blankets for us as coaches."

Many of the calls on the back end came from Neloms and will fall to Zack Blaylock, the more subdued of the twins and also the most inexperienced.

"Again, we'll simplify some things, give those guys a chance to get lined up and play," Phillips said. "But we've also got to do enough that we can take away some of the things that we think Arkansas will do in the passing game."

Despite the plethora of injuries and youth, Phillips tried to keep the mood light.

The head coach was asked how exactly he was keeping his sense of humor.

"What am I going to do?" Phillips said. "You've got to. Again, you get excited for those guys because they all came here to play. I don't know if they came here to play that soon, but they have to. Hey, just go out there and play. Let them go."

Sometimes not knowing what you're up against is the best way to go, Phillips said.

"That's why I'm not scared, because they don't know," he said of all the youth. "They don't know what they got into. And they shouldn't have to be playing at this time in their career, but they are."

Still, the youngsters will have to overcome nervousness, senior center Matt Smith said this week.

"It's going to be a shock to some of these guys who haven't played a lot to go on the road in the SEC," he said. "I still remember my first year of traveling on the road and just being in those stadiums and just listening to the crowd, which is against you."