New coach Phillips, WR Cobb ready to take Kentucky to next level
Led by high-energy coach Joker Phillips, Kentucky looks to take step forward
Speedy junior wide receiver Randall Cobb could be next SEC's breakout star
Cats coming off four straight bowl games, but have never contended in SEC
Over the past few years, Joker Phillips has taken to walking around Lexington, Ky., with his wife, Leslie. He used to run along the same streets of Thoroughbred City, covering the same route for decades. It wasn't until he started walking that he developed a new appreciation of things. "It slows you down and you see things you don't see when you run," Phillips said. "I see a house that has been there for 20 years and never noticed it."
It's fitting, then, that the call that changed Phillips' life came during one of those walks. It was the day after Kentucky's Music City Bowl loss to Clemson. The Phillipses were returning home when Phillips noticed he had a voice mail waiting on his cell phone. The message was from Wildcats coach Rich Brooks, who simply said: "I'm handing the ball off to you, now run with it."
After Brooks retired and handed the reigns to Phillips, he is working to do just that. His players don't run after practice; they're expected to do their conditioning during practice. They now sprint on and off the field, in and out of huddles and from drill to drill. While Brooks was known to sit back and observe, allowing his assistants to coach, Phillips is a hands-on teacher and he's infused the program with an infectious energy.
"I think guys are starting to care about their jobs a lot more," said junior wide receiver Randall Cobb. "The intensity level has gone up."
While Brooks took the 'Cats to unprecedented heights, reaching four straight bowl games for the first time in school history, some things never changed. He never beat Tennessee, which has won 25 straight in the series. Or Florida, whom the Wildcats haven't defeated since 1986. Last season, Kentucky's losing streak to South Carolina hit 10 straight and the Wildcats have never finished better than fourth in the SEC East. Phillips' challenge as he tries to emerge from the shadow of his mentor is to take Kentucky to the next level and compete for an East crown.
The plan is called "Operation Win." Phillips, who says he's always been enthralled with the military, began repeating the mantra as he and his wife prepared themselves for his introduction as Wildcats coach. But the words have taken on greater meaning, growing into a blueprint for Phillips' vision: win in the classroom, the community, and most importantly, on the field.
There are no shortage of questions as the Phillips era begins. There's an unresolved quarterback situation that will stretch into the fall with senior incumbent Mike Hartline, sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski fighting for the job; an offensive line that has four new starters and the matter of replacing two of their top three tacklers on defense. There's even the question as to whether Phillips, who has proven himself a top-notch recruiter, can succeed as a head coach.
Slogans sell T-shirts, mission statements can win a press conference. But the key to building on the foundation Brooks left behind as Phillips steps into his new role lies with another continuing transformation.
The words "The Home of Mann" are stretched across his back, sitting inside an outline of the state of Tennessee. It is a tatooed reminder of Cobb's Alcoa, Tenn., roots and his lifelong nickname (as Randall Cobb Jr., he was originally called "Little Mann," but it was shortened as he grew older).
"That's where I'm from. I just want to make sure I have my city and my state on my back at all times," he said. "I want to carry them wherever I go."
But don't worry Kentucky fans. Despite the tribute to the state of an East rival, Cobb wants to make one thing clear: "I bleed blue now, I'm Kentucky."
And with the do-it-all wide receiver on the verge of becoming the SEC's next household name, you can be sure Big Blue couldn't be happier about that. Cobb turned down a scholarship from the Volunteers, the team he grew up cheering for, and is coming off a sophomore season in which he ranked second in the SEC in total touchdowns (15), third in punt returns (12.8 per return) and fourth in all-purpose yards (139.4 per game).
He's already made an undeniable impact, but here's what ought to strike fear in the rest of the SEC: Cobb is still getting used to the position.
"The last couple of years I've gone out there and just been an athlete and that's gotten the job done a little bit," he said.
As a senior at Alcoa (Tenn.) High, Cobb threw for 1,765 yards and 22 touchdowns in leading the Tornadoes to a second straight state title. But at 5-foot-11, he received few offers to play quarterback in college. Kentucky gave him a chance and he made four starts as a freshman, throwing for 542 yards, but by the following spring he has been persuaded to move to wide receiver, where the staff installed the "WildCobb" formation, which saw him line up as a receiver or behind center.
"One of the things is we're trying to get him the ball in as many situations as we possibly can and give him confidence in the position," said Phillips, who was previously the Wildcats offensive coordinator. "We've thrown screens to him, we've done reverses with him, we've thrown it to him, we've snapped it to him."
The next evolution in Cobb's game is in the details, and he has a familiar teacher as he continues his progression: Tee Martin, the former Volunteers quarterback Cobb adored growing up and who Phillips hired as wide receivers coach.
"It's kind of weird, I had a conversation about six months before he got there just saying if there was ever an opening I hoped he took the job," Cobb said.
Martin has helped Cobb work on what he says was the most glaring weakness in his game: jumping off the line of scrimmage as the ball is snapped. "I had some trouble with that before," Cobb said. "He's really broken it down into detail for us and right now I feel like I've gotten a lot better."
Says Phillips "Its taken time with him but he's beginning to figure out this position."
Any SEC coach reading that sentiment out to take heed. When the coach's all-conference team was announced last season, Cobb's name was nowhere to be found -- and he's kept that slight close to heart.
"I feel like I've gained some respect from some of the coaches around the league, but I still haven't been that impact player that I need to be," he said. "If I want to get their respect, I have to go out and earn it, I have to take it. That's left me with a lot of hunger going into this season."