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Kentucky Wildcats Football: Joker Phillips Says Times Are A'Changin'

John Clay has an article today that discusses in a matter-of-fact way that this year's crop of freshmen is not like those of recent years, and that they appear to be an a good position to replace some of the older players on the traveling squad:

"There will be a lot of faces on this football team that traveled with us last year, that are battling to travel this year," head coach Joker Phillips said on Friday. "That's a good thing."

That is a bit exceptional, considering that the freshman classes since Randall Cobb's back in 2008 have failed to make much of a contribution in their first year.  Cobb was an amazing find, but reading between the lines of the coaches this year, it seems like the level of recruiting has improved to the point that many more of the new players are passing the "look test."  Freshman running back Josh Clemons is generating the most excitement, but the freshman wide receiving corps is also getting a lot of praise.

Understandably, Phillips is trying to avoid naming too many names:

"I don't want to back myself against the wall," Phillips said after Saturday morning's scrimmage when asked about players making noticeable moves.

I think that's smart at this point, not only for Phillips' reputation, but to prevent the heads of the young guys from swelling, something we have also seen before.

Another thing that is noticeable about this year is that controversy has been very minimal.  Last year, the quarterback contest among Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton, and Ryan Mossakowski drew all the attention, and the greater overall focus this year seems to back up my complaints last year that Phillips waited too long to name a starting quarterback.  It seems the coaching staff is much more focused on the overall team and less on the quarterback, and that feels like a good thing to me.

Speaking of Newton, he seems to be performing well:

"Morgan’s handling himself really well," coach Joker Phillips said. "He has really good command of the football. He threw the ball down the field with some authority, put it right over the receiver’s head. … I’m really pleased with how he has grown up and how he understands how to prepare to be a quarterback in this league."

Newton is a big, talented kid, the kind of quarterback who can really give even SEC teams problems with his athleticism and mobility.  It doesn't hurt that he has a good arm, and if he can get that arm sharp and accurate, he is going to be a real problem for defensive teams.  Unlike Mike Hartline, Newton can run the ball powerfully and with good speed, and can take a hit on the move.  His near-linebacker size is invaluable when it comes to durability.

On the defensive side of the ball, Phillips is impressed with the speed of Rick Minter's defense:

Phillips said the defense, which had multiple stops in red-zone situations Saturday, has improved its tackling and routinely swarms to the football in Minter’s new scheme. Speed, apparently, will be that unit’s calling card this fall.

"We’re as fast a defense as we’ve had around here," Phillips said.

I hesitate to get too excited about that, because I've heard it before.  My main concern this year is the same as it was last year -- can this group tackle and put offensive players on the ground?  Speed is valuable, but if your players can't tackle, a la last year, it doesn't help much.

To sum up, the good news so far seems to be that Newton is playing well, the defense is fast, and the freshmen are better than expected.  The bad news is that most of the offensive line is dinged up and did not play, we've lost a couple of talented players in Jerell Priester and Qua Huzzie, the skill positions are young, and the fact that freshmen are pushing so many returners can be both good and bad.