NCF Nation: Demarcus Sweat

Kentucky's Joker Phillips stays the course

September, 21, 2012
As the walls seemingly begin to close in on Joker Phillips at Kentucky, his focus remains as keen as it ever was.

And that is taking a program that has historically been irrelevant and finding a way to make it relevant in the strongest college football conference in the land.

“What we’re all working toward is getting this young team better every day, and we’ll have something in the end,” said Phillips, who will take 44 freshmen and sophomores (out of 70 players on the travel roster) to Florida this weekend.

“But, again, you don’t get a long time in today’s world.”

Losses to Louisville and Western Kentucky in the first three weeks of the season would suggest that Phillips’ time might be up unless the Wildcats can stage a stunning turnaround.

[+] EnlargeJoker Phillips
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky coach Joker Phillips might be on the hot seat, but he said he's committed to playing his underclassmen.
One of the classiest guys in the profession, Phillips understands unequivocally the urgency of the situation. But it doesn’t change who he is or how he goes about his business.

“I don’t worry about what might happen. I’ve got way too much to do,” Phillips said. “I’m committed to this program, and I’m committed to these kids. I’m trying to focus on getting them better every day.

“If time runs out on us, I get it. But we’re going to plow ahead.”

This is not new ground for Phillips, who’s in his 23rd year of being involved with the Kentucky football program in some capacity. As a sophomore player in 1982, the Wildcats finished 0-10-1. But as a senior, they won nine games and defeated Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

When Phillips returned to Kentucky for his second stint as an assistant coach in 2003, the Wildcats suffered through three straight losing seasons before reeling off five consecutive bowl appearances.

And even during that stretch when the Wildcats were going to bowl games every year under Rich Brooks, it’s not as if they were lighting up the SEC. In fact, Kentucky has finished with a losing SEC record in 11 of the past 12 seasons. The Wildcats were 4-4 in 2006 and haven’t managed a winning SEC record since 1977.

So at a place where basketball is king, it’s only fair to shed a little perspective on how little success the Wildcats have had in football over the years.

But it’s equally fair to point out that declining attendance numbers, coupled with a loss to an in-state foe that just moved up to FBS status five years ago, is going to put any coach squarely on the hot seat and rankle any fan base.

And make no mistake. The Kentucky fan base is rankled and rapidly moving in the direction of being apathetic. Only 48,346 people showed up for the Wildcats’ home opener two weeks ago at 67,942-seat Commonwealth Stadium. That’s after losing to bitter rival Louisville in the season opener.

Phillips’ message to the fans is the same as it’s been to his team, which has 24 freshmen and sophomores, including seven true freshmen, in its two-deep.

Hang in there.

“The fans who’ve stuck with us and are showing up for games, I’d tell them that I appreciate them,” Phillips said. “The other thing is that we need those fans more now than ever. The older guys may understand the fans bailing on us. It’s hard for a young team to understand that. They don’t understand it when they see fans turning their back on us.

“So I would tell the fans to stick with this young team. They’re going to give you some wows, good and bad. I’ve been a part of this program for a long time, and nobody hurts as much as I do. While I’ve been here, I’ve been through some of the biggest memories of victory as anybody. I’ve been a part of those.

“We’ll get it turned. Just stick with us.”

Phillips said the support from Kentucky’s administration has been tremendous. Dr. Eli Capilouto, the university president, stopped by the football offices one night earlier this week to show his support. Phillips said athletic director Mitch Barnhart has also been extremely supportive.

“We’re doing things the right way, and this place has been one of those that hasn’t always done it the right way,” Phillips said. “They’ve won quick and it hasn’t been the right way.

“We’re doing things the right way and understand how to win.”

Phillips has been a staunch disciplinarian since taking over the program in 2010 and has steadfastly suspended players when they’ve gotten into trouble off the field or embarrassed the university.

“I just don’t believe in taking shortcuts that way,” Phillips said. “The only way kids are going to learn is if you hold them accountable.”

He’s equally committed to playing even more young players as this season progresses. The Wildcats are taking 15 true freshmen with them on the trip to Florida.

“We’re going to do what’s best for the program and what’s best for the kids,” Phillips said. “It’s best to go ahead and play these young guys. We’ve already committed to them.”

In Kentucky’s touchdown drive to tie the Western Kentucky game and force overtime last week, sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith hooked up with true freshman DeMarcus Sweat on a 22-yard touchdown pass. In the same drive, sophomore Demarco Robinson and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins also had key catches.

“Young guys like Sweat are going to get more opportunities,” Phillips said. “They’re going to make mistakes, but you’ve got to give them a chance to play through those mistakes. He’s had four opportunities this season, dropped one, caught three and two of them were touchdowns. The reason he hasn’t caught more is that he hasn’t played much. But he’ll rotate in, if not start, this week.

“It’s hard when you’re playing as many young guys as we are, but it’s the right thing to do.

“We’ll be better off for it down the road.”

SEC stutters in off-brand games

September, 15, 2012

The SEC East fight between Florida and Tennessee took center stage in prime time tonight, followed closely by Missouri's nail-biting victory against Arizona State. While those two matchups took up most of the airwaves and the attention, the rest of the league struggled a bit in several low-key matchups.

First up is Week 3's black eye for the conference:

Western Kentucky 32, Kentucky 31 (OT): The Sun Belt downed an SEC team for the second consecutive weekend -- though Western Kentucky's overtime win against the Wildcats isn't quite on par with Louisiana-Monroe's upset of No. 8 Arkansas last week.

The Hilltoppers raced out to a 17-0 lead on Kentucky before eventually allowing the Wildcats back into it. Kentucky forced overtime with just 24 seconds remaining when quarterback Maxwell Smith found wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat for a 22-yard score that tied the game at 24-24. Kentucky scored to open the overtime period, but Western Kentucky answered on a two-yard run from running back Antonio Andrews.

The Hilltoppers opted to go for two points and the win rather than kick an extra point. The decision worked to perfection when Andrews took a screen pass from quarterback Kawaun Jakes, only to fire back to Jakes on a halfback pass. Jakes strolled into the end zone for the 32-31 win.

Mississippi State 30, Troy 24: The Bulldogs seemed to have Troy under control when they took a 23-7 lead at halftime. But the Trojans roared back on the strength of 223 yards rushing, with three rushing touchdowns.

Bulldogs wide receiver Chad Bumphis did whatever he wanted to the Troy secondary. He caught six balls for 180 yards and three touchdowns, the last of which put Mississippi State up by nine with seven minutes to play. Troy kicked a field goal to cut the lead to six with four minutes to play, but the Bulldogs were able to hold on.

South Carolina 49, Alabama-Birmingham 6: The Gamecocks eventually downed the Blazers by quite a convincing score, but there was plenty of bumbling in a first half that saw UAB cut the lead as close as eight.

Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson both saw time at quarterback for South Carolina. Shaw had the better completion percentage, as he went 8 of 14 for 107 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Thompson only completed 5 of 10 passes, but he had the better stats, with 177 yards for two touchdowns and no picks.

South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore carried 12 times for 85 yards, and his lone touchdown of the night put the Gamecocks up 21-6 just before halftime. South Carolina outscored the Blazers 28-0 in the second half to pull away -- the biggest highlight coming on a 94-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to wide receiver Damiere Byrd.