Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was part of Wednesday’s second session at Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover, Ala.
Phillips spoke about his expectations heading into his third season, last year’s signing class, how 26 of his top 44 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores and whether he feels like his seat is hot, among other things.
Here is the transcript from Phillips’ quotes on Wednesday:
COACH PHILLIPS: Thank you. We are excited, I know everybody in this building is excited because it’s football time. I got a call from my eighth grade nephew last night, Josiah, tried to call him during the day, didn’t get an answer from him. Later on in the night he called me and he was all excited because he had been at football practice.
Being here at Media Day let’s you know that it’s football time. So we’re excited to be here. I know you guys are excited. I told some of the other media, I’m sure you’re excited also because you don’t have to chase stories as much, the stories will come to you now. I know everybody in this building is excited.
We’re excited about this upcoming season. Again, what makes us excited is how we finished last season. Our last four games last year we were 2‑2. Of those last four games, what also makes you excited, for some reason or another, there were a lot of true freshmen, true sophomores, that were thrust into playing time, playing significant roles on our football team, whether it be offense, defense or special teams. Of those last four games, you saw a lot of those guys making huge plays for us. That’s what gets us excited.
Although we did not reach our goal of getting our program into a sixth straight bowl game, there was a goal, our last goal of our 2011 season, which was to win our last game. Prior to last season, it had been two seasons before, actually three, that we had won our last game. We had lost to Clemson in the Music City Bowl, we lost to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Bowl here. So one of our goals last year was to win our last game and we were able to reach that.
Academically in the spring we had another good spring. We need to continue strong academically in the summer.
Recruiting, we signed a full class last year of 25. All 25 of those guys are on our campus. Of those 25, we have 13 in our football camps on our campus. I think that is huge. I think that is huge for us at Kentucky.
I think we have an experienced staff that understands how to evaluate. Some guys that come to mind that were in some other camps that were in our program before, Myron Pryor, who is playing with the New England Patriots, another guy named Randall Cobb, who went to a lot of camps in this league that was turned down. We think we understand what we’re looking for. We’re trying to take a similar model to what we did at Minnesota when I was at Minnesota with Glen Mason, is to take long, lean athletes, bring them into our program, see what they grow into being.
You’ll see a guy that’s walking around here named Collins Ukwu. He was one of those guys. Now he looks like an SEC defensive lineman. The same model we had at Minnesota, and at Minnesota we took that model of Wisconsin. Wisconsin, if you look, I have a good friend that’s the head coach there, Bret Bielema. They do not have high‑ranked recruiting classes, not even in the Big Ten, but all they do is finish at the top of the Big Ten.
We try to take a similar model. We make sure we get our kids on our campus to evaluate them, because I feel like this staff understands what we’re looking for. We had two new additions to our staff. Mike Cassity, who 30 years ago when I was a freshman at Kentucky was the defensive back coach. He’s a Kentuckian, a letterman, and for 30 years has been trying to get back here. We had an opportunity to hire him.
He is a guy that not only is he a Kentuckian, a letterman in football and letterman in wrestling at Kentucky, he also has a history with Rick Minter, who is in his second year with our program. He has unbelievable experience in recruiting and in developing players to the next level.
Another hire we were able to go out and get was Pat Washington, who is a guy that played quarterback in this league. He has 13 years of experience in this league. Of those 13 years, he’s been at three different schools. So going out and hiring Pat Washington, again, he has a history with Randy Sanders, I think that is big in us getting a guy that not only has experience in this league, but has a history with the coordinator that we have in place.
Our players are working extremely hard in some grueling heat in Kentucky to prepare themselves for this season.
Q. What does it mean for your team in terms of their confidence to end the season last year on a positive note? What are some of the things you want to improve on from last year?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, I think it’s huge in our conference in gaining confidence, especially when you are as young as we are as a football team.
Again, there’s a lot of young kids making plays for us late in the season, especially the last four games. You look out there, the last game, probably four or five true freshmen playing for us on defense. Bud Dupree is a guy that someday will be at this event here, be a household name in the state of Kentucky.
So I think it was huge in our players gaining confidence. I think it was huge in that those guys were able to make plays. The guys that were redshirted that were in the same class as them, I think it gave them confidence that they want to experience some of the same things that some of their classmates did.
We have 26 of our top 44 players that are freshmen and sophomores. That may seem like disastrous to some. But when we started this bowl streak, it was 24, not counting the freshmen coming in. There were 24 freshmen and sophomores, redshirted freshmen and sophomores, in our program. We have 26 now. We feel like we have more quality players in our program now, especially in our young groups.
Our upperclassmen, you’ll see three guys walking around here, two offensive linemen, a defensive linemen, that we’re putting a lot on those shoulders to lead us in the locker room. Two of the guys have been here for five years, Larry Warford has been in our program for four years. They’ve all been three‑year starters. I think that is huge in those guys being able to lead our locker room.
They definitely have the respect and they definitely have the numbers on the field to be able to tell a freshman, tell a sophomore, Here is how we do things, we need you to step up. It’s their job. It’s their football team now.
Q. Your thoughts on Texas A&M and Missouri coming into the league, and if you think the SEC should further expand or do you feel that 14 is a good, solid number?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, what we tell recruits, what we are tell our players is the best league just got better. Two quality institutions in Texas A&M and Missouri coming into our league, so two quality institutions. Two quality football programs that both have great coaches with Coach Sumlin and Gary. Those guys do an unbelievable job.
Somebody asked me, What advice would you give them? I don’t need to give those guys advice. They understand how to compete at a high level.
As far as more expansion, my job is to make sure I’m winning games at Kentucky. We have an unbelievable commissioner that will make sure, if the time is right, that we would want to expand even more. He’s the guy that’s in place to make sure it’s the right time or the wrong time. That’s not my position.
Q. You’re losing Morgan Newton and La’Rod King after this season. What is your process in recruiting to replace talent like that that’s been so important to the program?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, you’re going to have to replace those type of people every year. Danny Trevathan was our best player on defense the last couple years. He didn’t get a lot of snaps as a freshman and a sophomore. He had to step up after Sam Maxwell, one of the top linebackers in this league, left. We expect someone to step up when La’Rod King and Morgan Newton leave.
A lot of that has to do with recruiting. We’ve brought some quality guys on our campus, two really good wide receivers. We feel we’ve done a good job of evaluating that position. Now those guys have to go out and play.
Same thing with the quarterback position. Again, from top to bottom, the position at quarterback, we feel we are as deep as we’ve ever been talent‑wise, okay. We may not be experience‑wise, but we feel like we’re as good as we’ve ever been talent‑wise with Morgan Newton, Maxwell Smith, and Jalen Whitlow, who just walked on campus.
Q. Talk about the Tennessee win last year. How gratifying was that to end the streak, not only as a former player, but for the fan base at Kentucky.
COACH PHILLIPS: Again, I think it was big in that we fulfilled another goal in 2011, is winning our last game. I think another thing that helps us as coaches and what’s lost is how we won the game, okay? I’m not talking about putting Matt in. We would not have been able to play the way we played on offense if we did not play great special teams, which they had to go at least 70 yards or more when they went in on offense. We would not have been able to play the way we did on offense if we didn’t play great defense. So we ran the football.
Our plan to win is 10 things. I’ll give you an example of a couple of them. If you look back at that game, those are the reasons we won and those are the things we’re able to sell to our program for the future. We ran the football, protected the football, created turnovers, didn’t give up big plays. We gave up two big plays, one for a touchdown, one we created a turnover right afterwards. We played great special teams, field position. We stopped the run.
Those are the things that allow us, not just breaking a streak, beating Tennessee, I’m talking about the way we won the game. I think that gives us an opportunity to grow as a program. Now we understand what it takes to win, okay? You don’t always have to put up 500, 600 yards offensively, okay? You don’t always have to score 35 points, okay? You have to do all the little things that’s needed.
You can’t make foolish mistakes. We didn’t make any foolish mistakes in that game. I think all those things gives us an opportunity to sell what we consider our plan to win at Kentucky.
Q. For at least 60 years the perception of Kentucky is that it’s been a basketball school and football has been a clear second fiddle. Did Kentucky winning the national championship in basketball this year reinforce that perception or does Kentucky being so good in basketball help your recruiting?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, I’m a Kentuckian, okay? I’m a long time Kentuckian. I’m a letterman, an alumnus. Everybody has things they want to sell in their program. I’m selling our basketball program, okay? I would be crazy to try to fight that. I’m trying to sell our basketball program.
I think it was unbelievable advertising of our logo. Every time our basketball team went to the next round, playing in the Final Four. How many times did kids see the UK interlocking brand out there? I think that’s huge.
We want to hitch our wagon to our basketball program. Who doesn’t want to see John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Brandon Knight, who doesn’t want to see those guys play? All these football players think they’re basketball players. They want to see good basketball. That’s a chance for us to sell, Hey, come watch these guys play.
Now we’re able to sell us. We got them on our campus. We’re able to sell that we’ve had 40 guys sign NFL contracts in five years. We’re able to sell we have a streak of five bowl games. We’re able to sell we have great academics. We sell the things that we feel will help us win at Kentucky.
I’ll say something else, too, about that.
A couple weeks ago I had a kid on campus, a dual‑sport athlete on our campus. Coach Cal, he’s coaching the Dominican Republican team and Puerto Rico. Five minutes before he goes out on the court, Coach Cal calls me on speaker phone to talk to a recruit. How many coaches would do that five minutes before they’re going out on the court?
He also does it on our recruiting weekends. Our recruiting weekends, 30 minutes before his basketball team goes out on the basketball court to take the court, we’re able to bring our recruits into his locker room and he addresses them.
I thought there’s no way this guy is going to allow us to come into his locker room. You might think it wasn’t a big game. The first time we done it, it was the North Carolina game, 1 versus 2. He addresses our potential recruits.
So he and I have a great working relationship. Again, we’re selling. Everything there is to sell about Kentucky, we’re selling to our football recruits. Our basketball program is one of those selling points.
Q. I’ve seen your name on a bunch of these hot seat lists. Is that unfair given that you’ve been there two years? Realizing in the SEC you’re only as good as your last year or game.
COACH PHILLIPS: I’m not sitting down right now, so there’s nothing hot (smiling).
I don’t have time to listen to that stuff. All we have time to think about is doing all the productive things in our program that we need to get it back to the level that we want to. I don’t have time to think about those things.
Again, it’s like negative recruiting. The time that I got to talk about somebody else’s program, I’m losing time when I got to sell the great state of Kentucky and what we have to offer there. It takes away from the time for me to sell our basketball program. It takes away time for me to sell our 40 guys that we’ve had sign in five years. It takes away from me to sell that we have unbelievable, unbelievable fan base that stick with us through thick and thin.
I don’t have time to deal with those things either. All I need to do is make sure we’re putting a product on the field that can be successful.
Q. Can you talk about your interdivision rival with Mississippi State. Would you entertain any kind of discussion with a nine‑game conference schedule expanding the schedule?
COACH PHILLIPS: It’s been a good series between us and Mississippi State. Coach Mullen has done an unbelievable job there. He’s had our number. We have to get to where we can compete a little bit better against those guys.
A ninth game, me being at Kentucky, would be opposed to a ninth game. I would be against having a ninth game. That’s me taking care of my program. I think I really like the format that we have right now, the 6‑1‑1. Gives us an opportunity. We still play the University of Louisville. Gives us a chance to schedule three other out‑of‑conference games.
Q. Are you satisfied with the four‑team playoff? Do you see any flaws in the system?
COACH PHILLIPS: I am. I’m satisfied. As long as we’re able to have‑‑ you don’t have to win your conference to be a part of that. I think that we’re four teams. If you take the top four teams in the country, probably 99% of the time, two of those teams will be in this league, so we’ll be able to get two teams in this league in the championship.
I really like the format of playing the four teams.
Q. The torn meniscus that Josh Clemons is coming back from, will it be later on or next year before he’s a hundred percent and fully recovered from that?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, Josh Clemons is a guy that started for us. Another one of those young players that started for us. I think he started in week three. Played really well in the first two games. Got to start against the University of Louisville. Tore his knee up in the South Carolina game, which was past the time to redshirt. He missed the rest of the year. He will now be a sophomore.
He will be a guy this fall camp that will work about two days a week, try to get in the season. Hopefully by the season he’s a hundred percent.
Again, the quarterback position and the runningback position I think will be the two positions that will have the most competition. CoShik Williams ended up as our starter. Raymond Sanders started a lot of games. Jonathan George played a lot of games around there. In walks two SEC‑type backs in Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor, who just walked on campus.
Those guys add quality depth to a position that already has some experience.
Thank you, guys.
Courtesy SEC Sports