- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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On the surface, things don't look good at Kentucky. And things don't look like they're getting better, either.
Coach Joker Phillips and his banged up Wildcats enter Saturday's game with Vanderbilt sporting a 1-8 record and no wins in conference play. Kentucky ranks 11th or worse in the SEC in all of the major offensive and defense categories, and Phillips' seat in Lexington is getting hotter by the day.
However, behind closed doors, Phillips sees progress, and slowly it's translating to the field.
What Phillips, who is in his third year as Kentucky's coach, sees is a very, very young team that might be down on production but is up on enthusiasm because of all the playing time it's getting.
Because of a rash of injuries and a shortage of upperclassmen, the Wildcats are playing 14 true freshmen. The secondary is freshman-heavy and a couple freshmen have received time at linebacker as well. The punter, long snapper, left guard and both available quarterbacks are freshmen.
Youngsters are playing key roles way too early for the Wildcats, which is both a blessing and a curse for Phillips and the Wildcats.
"They get more reps than any freshman could have imagined -- more starting or backup reps than any freshman could have imagined," Phillips said.
"It's definitely helped the attitudes of the way they've prepared each week."
Sure, any freshman would love to play early. Players come out of high school expecting immediate playing time, but not every gets it. At Kentucky, a bunch have this season, and while it has stunted the Wildcats' growth in the win column, it has helped these youngsters get a very early and important jump on SEC competition.
"We've have no problem with keeping this young football team up," Phillips said. "Again, they're getting reps that are really unheard of for young kids."
The problem is that the positive attitudes aren't translating into wins, and that's why the surface is magnified so much. Players can be as happy as they want about playing time, but no one is happy about losing. And Phillips knows that. He understands there's frustration in the Bluegrass State, but he's also hoping there's a little optimism for the future.
It's similar to when Kentucky saw an unheard of 35 surgeries during the 2005 season. The Wildcats were forced to play a lot more backups/younger players and were able to redshirt some of their older players.
It wasn't an ideal situation for Kentucky at the time, but it did lay the groundwork for a success Wildcat run.
"All it did is give us a chance to build depth for later on down the road," Phillips said. "That depth turned into five straight bowl games."
There's obviously no way to tell if these Wildcats will have the same fate, and that's working against Phillips. He'll have to show people around the program that this team will get better.
It starts with these youngsters producing more on the field ... like yesterday.
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