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JOKER PHILLIPS GREW WEARY OF THE TALK THIS SPRING. THE Kentucky coach could sense the satisfaction on campus over his team's school-record fifth consecutive bowl-game appearance last season, as fans excitedly debated whether the Wildcats could continue the streak. Such conversation, Phillips believes, has to change. "I want to be talked about as being in the title race."
Kentucky, which had made just 10 bowl appearances in 124 years before its current run, doesn't look the part of a title contender quite yet. Gone are do-everything All-SEC receiver Randall Cobb (Green Bay's second-round draft pick) and fellow wideout Chris Matthews (nine TD catches). So, too, is quarterback Mike Hartline (25 starts) and tailback Derrick Locke (2,396 total yards over the last two seasons).
Quarterback Morgan Newton, once a highly touted recruit who started eight games as a freshman in 2009, struggled before earning the starting position this spring. And while Newton will work behind a veteran offensive line that may be the Wildcats' greatest asset, his supporting cast is in desperate need of playmakers, with only one starting wide receiver returning (La'Rod King, who had 36 receptions for 478 yards and five touchdowns last year) and a new starter at tailback, Raymond Sanders, who rushed only 68 times as a freshman last season.
A defense that gave up an average of 28.4 points last season (only Vanderbilt and Ole Miss yielded more in the SEC) must now get accustomed to a complex system installed by new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter, the Cincinnati head coach from 1994 to 2003. Minter will blend his 3--4 schemes with Kentucky's established 4--3 defense into a hybrid package intended to increase pressure at the line by moving smaller players, including junior linebacker Ridge Wilson and safety Winston Guy, closer to the ball while keeping the option of dropping extra defenders into pass coverage. Minter believes that this aggressive and versatile defense will make it more difficult for opponents to prepare for his team—if his players can grasp the change.
Such uncertainty may not seem typical for a team engaging in title talk, but the coaches believe in aiming high. "For us to get in the food chain," Minter says, "we [need] that self-esteem challenge."
COACH Joker Phillips (2nd year) 6--7 (2--6 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Randy Sanders
DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS Steve Brown, Rick Minter