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Report Card: Kentucky Football Under Joker Phillips

The following article was written by Tyler Montell. He bleeds blue. Graduated from UK in 2009 after serving as the Student Body President and on the Board of Trustees. He now attends law school in enemy territory, Louisville. He is the lead writer for Kentucky football on Saturday Down South.  Tyler will be guest-blogging periodically for A Sea of Blue during the football season.

"I'm handing the ball off to you, now run with it." Those eleven words, uttered in a voicemail message, signified the end of one era; and the beginning of another in Lexington. Joker Phillips told Sports Illustrated’s Cory McCarteny that the message left by Brooks was waiting for him when he arrived home from the 2009 Music City Bowl. While the message only contained few words, its consequence will be felt for decades.

The question is not whether or not the ball now belongs to Phillips; he signed on as head coach in January. The question remains whether Mr. Phillips is in fact running with the ball. In other words, are we making progress?

The program enjoyed moderate success in the last part of Brooks’ tenure in Lexington, appearing in four consecutive bowls games. However, many fans remain discontented that the team has yet to rise above a lower tier Tennessee bowl appearance. Whether it is blind ambition, stubborn arrogance, or wishful thinking- fans expect the program to mature and take the next step in the direction of the SEC elite; or at least break eight wins. Are we on that path? Are we carrying the ball towards the goal, even after a 4-4 start this season? In a word: Yes.

To properly evaluate the state of the Kentucky program, we must start before the South Carolina win, the Ole Miss debacle, the Florida blowout loss, and the Louisville season opener. It is oft said that programs are built in the offseason, and for Kentucky, this rings true. One of the criticisms from former players from Brooks’ tenure was the offseason training program. While upper echelon programs use professional, position specific conditioning programs, Brooks took a ‘one size fits all’ approach. To his credit, Phillips went after one of the best conditioning and strength coaches in the business in Cincinnati Bengals’ Rock Oliver.

Phillips brought in Mike Summers to coach the offensive line, David Turner to coach the defensive line, and Tee Martin to coach receivers. Summers’ group, a solid line anchored by Billy Joe Murphy, gave up thirteen sacks in 2009, but only nine thus far this season. Turner inherited a struggling corps, coming of a 2009 season where the unit amassed just sixteen sacks in the entire season, tying for last in the league. In 2010, however, Turner’s guys have already recorded twelve. Tee Martin has two receivers in the top five of all SEC route runners. In terms of an investment, there is no real quantitative way to measure the impact of a strength coach in just one season, but the hires of Summers, Turner and Martin are paying dividends.

Kentucky broke into the top half of the SEC is passing yards just once (in 2007) under Brooks. This season, Phillips’ passing unit boasts the best passing attack in the division, and second best in the league. Much of this success is due to the maturity and development of the much-maligned Mike Hartline, who currently leads the league in gross yards and touchdowns thrown. A great deal of praise goes to Offensive Coordinator Randy Sanders, who coaches the twenty-third ranked offense in the country in points scored.

While the offense has improved under the Phillips’ administration, the defense has struggled. In a stat that can be anything but understated, the Cats have the nation’s second worst red zone defense, and rank ninety-eighth in the country in points scored against. Despite holding the #6 and #10 ranked teams in the country to six points in the second halves of the contests, the defense allowed 59 points and 581 total yards in first halves. Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown shook things up this week by starting sophomore linebacker Ridge Wilson at Mississippi State. The defense should look better as the Kentucky schedule eases up a bit; with the remainder of SEC play against a 1-4 Vanderbilt, and a 0-5 Tennessee.

In qualitative terms, the season has been disappointing. While Joker and company found a signature win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, the rest of the season has been riddled with heartbreak and frustration. Sure, the loss of Derrick Locke is a critical one, but good teams find a way to win. The Wildcats just haven’t done that against any SEC team not named Cackalacka.

In short, the long term perspective in Lexington is bright. Despite defensive struggles, Kentucky was in position to win nearly every game this season. The young secondary is improving, and the domination of Danny "The Leviathan" Trevathan is encouraging. With the return of Derrick Locke, Kentucky is in prime position to finish out the season with three convincing wins, including a much-needed victory in Knoxville.

The Kentucky football program is getting better, and this program will reach new heights with Joker Phillips. While Saturday night was a reminder that the team isn’t there yet, the body of evidence suggests that the club is on the right path. This is Joker’s program, and I’d say the ball is in pretty good hands.