Mark Story

Mark Story: UK should let Reese Phillips keep his redshirt

True freshman Reese Phillips played well in the Blue-White Game and is reportedly among the positives at UK practices.
True freshman Reese Phillips played well in the Blue-White Game and is reportedly among the positives at UK practices. Herald-Leader

In the milieu of Kentucky Wildcats football, there is no brew more intoxicating than the mystery that attaches itself to an unseen quarterback.

When Mark Stoops suggested at his Monday news conference that UK might consider pulling the redshirt — the term for sitting out a season of competition without losing a year of eligibility — off true freshman QB Reese Phillips for Saturday's matchup with Alabama State, it created a stir.

When, like Kentucky, you are 1-6, mired in a five-game losing streak and when your program is in its third straight season of not having a set starting QB, the yearning to invest emotionally in something new is understandable.

Yet in deciding whether to have a player give up a redshirt year deep into a season, a coach has to work through the equation that balances the interests of a program versus what is best for the athlete.

The more a team has to play for in a season, the more justification there is in asking a college student to make a sacrifice for the greater good. The less a program has at stake, the less rationale there is to ask a player to take one for the team.

It doesn't take much of a dig into UK football history to see what can go wrong in pulling a redshirt late in a season.

Just last year, after starting quarterback Maxwell Smith was knocked out for the season by injury, the-then UK coaching staff of Joker Phillips took the redshirt off QB Patrick Towles in the season's sixth game.

The plan was to have true freshmen Towles and Jalen Whitlow, who had already played in the 2012 season, split the quarterbacking duties the remainder of the year. With one game more than half the season remaining, it was a justifiable move.

Yet Towles made it through three series of his first game before suffering a bad ankle sprain. He wound up playing in bits of five games, but it turned out to be a wasted year for him in what was a 2-10 season.

The most egregious examples of a UK coaching staff putting its interests ahead of its players in regard to redshirt status of athletes late in seasons came at the end of the Bill Curry era.

In 1995, as the Curry staff fought to avoid pink slips, UK pulled the redshirts off receiver Kevin Coleman in the ninth contest of an 11-game season and off center Jason Watts in the 10th game.

That was bad, but even worse was what happened the next year. At the time of Kentucky's 1996 season finale against Tennessee, Curry and Co. were coaching out the string after having already been fired. UK took a 4-6 record into Knoxville, meaning there was nothing on the line.

Yet citing injuries at fullback, Curry and offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac took the redshirt off true freshman Jimmy Haley and burned one full year of his college eligibility by playing him in what became a 56-10 Cats loss.

In the current Kentucky season, frustration with UK's performance at the quarterback position is burning hot. Whitlow, a dual-threat, is not an ideal fit as a passer in new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown's Air Raid system.

Nevertheless, the sophomore form Prattville, Ala., seemed to have laid claim to the Wildcats' starting job with a strong performance at South Carolina — only to be sidelined by a sprained ankle in the following game against Alabama.

In stints as the UK starter in both 2011 and '12, Smith looked impressive as a pocket passer. He does not seem to be the same player in 2013. One suspects the accumulated impact of the injuries (shoulder, ankle) that ended both of his two prior Kentucky seasons explains that.

Meanwhile, the "scuttlebutt" coming out of UK's closed practices on the play of Reese Phillips, a 6-foot-2, 219-pound product of Chattanooga, Tenn., has been uniformly positive. In last spring's Blue-White Game (he graduated high school early to enroll at UK for spring football), the freshman completed 10 of 12 passes.

Yet to justify pulling the redshirt off Phillips with only five games left, Stoops, Brown & Co. would need to be committed to starting the freshman the rest of the year.

That does not seem to be the case.

By Wednesday, both Stoops and Brown said they hoped Whitlow would both start and finish against FCS foe Alabama State (6-2). Both also said they hope Phillips can maintain his redshirt status.

Not pulling Phillips' redshirt is almost certainly best for all concerned.

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