UK coach Joker Phillips held his first weekly news conference Monday at Commonwealth Stadium as the Cats prepare for their Season opener Sunday in Louisville.
COACH PHILLIPS: Our injury report. Jordan Aumiller is day‑to‑day. He has plantar fascia, has been struggling through that all off‑season, this summer, and also during fall camp. But we're as healthy as we've ever been. We held La'Rod King out last Saturday, really more for him to recover, get his legs back underneath him. Limited (Mister) Cobble for the same reason. Those guys had a ton of reps.
We are as healthy as we've ever been around here, and that's the key to success in this, the 2012 season. We still have a lot of work to do. We'll work on Tuesday, Wednesday, which will be Tuesday‑type practices for us. Thursday, Friday, we'll actually have two Thursday‑type practices, a little lighter practices.
We must be fresh. That's my job. But our players have to help us out. When they have time off, getting off their feet, rest and relax.
Saturday will be a travel day for us. We'll have a light walk‑through, then travel up to Louisville and get ready for the game.
Q. What is the best thing you like about your team?
COACH PHILLIPS: I really like the attitude in the locker room. We have got a lot more leaders. You guys got a chance to talk to a few of them today. Those guys are doing a really good job.
I've been saying from day one when we first got back together, I like the leadership we have at the top. Those guys at the top are starting to bring some other guys up with them. I think that's key to our success also.
Q. We haven't seen Maxwell (Smith) since spring game. What's his improvement since then?
COACH PHILLIPS: He's been really efficient in how consistent he is, throwing strikes, which is putting the ball at eye level for receivers. I like the way he operates.
Again, he's not going to be a guy that is going to beat you with his legs, we all know that. But he's a guy that can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his mind. He can see a blitz, change the protection to pick up the blitz, then hurt you with it.
When we don't have enough protectors, he also understands our sight adjustments and gets the ball to our receivers quickly, and a lot of those guys make plays.
You'll see a more confident player. Last year as a true freshman everything was new to him. Especially seeing our defense, there's nothing he hasn't seen. There's nothing that can confuse him that he hasn't seen. You'll see a more confident, more relaxed Max Smith.
Q. Will that be even more important to Max due to a young offensive line and the way Charlie (Strong) likes to blitz?
COACH PHILLIPS: Yeah, and we'll take some of that off of him also with our ability to check with us at the sideline.
But what will help Max is what he has seen in practice. Rick is cut from the same cloth. You know, he likes to bring pressure from all different angles, all different directions, all different down‑and‑distance, similar to what we'll see on Sunday, Max has seen all season.
Q. Can you give us an update on Josh Clemons?
COACH PHILLIPS: Josh Clemons is out this week. I didn't say it because I thought I told you guys last week.
Again, when they went in, he had some loose bodies they had to clean up. Therefore, he'll be out for this game.
Q. Is it important that the defensive line, which is most experienced on the defense, sets the tone early?
COACH PHILLIPS: It is important that those guys up front do set the tone, set the tempo. Be able to stop the run first, then be able to get pressure with just getting in some basic rush lanes.
We are in man‑to‑man coverage. We have to be able to understand pass protections. When we send out blitzes, our nose has to understand sometimes that he crosses the center's space, some protections he doesn't have to cross his space.
We have to be really good in understanding our pressure packages so we can take some pressure off the back end. We have to be able to get home on them. Again, we have to be able to scheme up some of their protections to get home. Also our guys have to understand rush lanes to get home.
Q. Can you talk about the No. 2 guys in the secondary and what you are seeing and anticipating out of them?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, Daron Blaylock is the number two guy at safety. He's a guy that's really smart, really physical. He was a guy we originally penciled in when we signed him to be a Sam back, the hybrid guy.
He came in here. He's more athletic than we thought. Smart kid. Comes from a really good background at Walton High School in Marietta (Ga.). So we moved him to safety. We actually had to do it one day when we had a bunch of safeties out.
You come out of the lineup, somebody goes in. This guy goes in, was able to get lined up, was able to come down here and make plays for us. Therefore, he will be the backup.
Fred Tiller is another guy. I won't talk about these guys until they play, but he's a guy that is a really smooth athlete, he's long. He looks lean, but he's thicker than he looks. He doesn't look like a fifth‑year senior. Sixth‑year senior, Trevard Lindley, he's even thicker than him. He's a guy that got into our two‑deep.
Dakotah Tyler, he was really battling for the starting position with Mikie Benton. I think a lot that hurt him, he wasn't here in the spring and missed a lot of reps. But he's a guy that's capable of being a starter before the season is over. Excited about getting him back.
J.D. Harmon, he was originally a receiver. Our strength and conditioning coaches saw him this summer, saw his athletic ability. When we get down in numbers at the corner position, the one guy that we thought could go over there and line up would be J.D.
He's done an unbelievable job. He's a real physical guy. He's a real long guy. Stronger than most freshmen that come in here in the secondary. Therefore, he'll be one of the backup corners also. Be probably our first guy to go in in our nickel situation. I'm not saying he'll play nickel, but he'll be the fifth to go in the game.
Q. You have been really confident in the depth at running back. Are you still OK there even with Clemons out?
COACH PHILLIPS: I'm very confident and comfortable about the running back position. Again, those two young guys give us the ability to have even more depth than we originally thought we'd have before the season.
Again, there are four guys that have played significant roles since they've been here at the tailback position. Just adding those two guys gives us even more depth.
Q. What does Teddy Bridgewater bring to their offense?
COACH PHILLIPS: He’s a guy that played really well for them in the second half (against) us, made some huge throws. Came out of high school, people were wondering if he could throw the ball well enough to be a big‑time quarterback. Well, he can. He threw for 2100 yards last year, didn't really get into the game until our game, which was the third game last year.
Also is a guy that can pull it down and make plays with his feet. He's been a guy that you don't ever see people getting pressure on him because of him not understanding protections or changing protections. He understands that also.
He's been a really good quarterback for them. He's one of the top quarterbacks for them, not just in their league, but one of the top quarterbacks in the country.
Q. EJ Fields, Gene McCaskill, Aaron Boyd are on the two-deep. Is that mainly because of their leadership of how some of the freshmen performed?
COACH PHILLIPS: Those other guys (freshmen) will play. You worry about those guys getting big‑eyed right off the bat. But they'll play. They'll play a lot. But those three guys have done a really good job and deserve to be the guys that run out there first.
I'm really proud of Aaron Boyd. He's done a really good job. Really proud of E.J. Both those guys we've been waiting and waiting and waiting, and now I think the time has come for those guys to play big roles for us. They've done a really good job of helping the young guys also.
Then Gene McCaskill, it's been two years that he's been battling injuries. Really happy that he'll have an opportunity to play this season also. I mean, Gene is a guy we had really high hopes for, especially after year two when we thought he would be our number three receiver with Randall (Cobb) and Chris Matthews. He hurt his knee. Hasn't gotten back to form until this year.
Doesn't get a lot of reps, but he doesn't need a lot of reps. He'll practice on Tuesday and Thursday. Take off on Wednesday. Then he'll go play the game. I think that's about all the practice he needs.
Q. Is this is the healthiest Gene has been?
COACH PHILLIPS: It is. Since his sophomore year. His sophomore year is when he hurt his knee. But, yes, this is the healthiest he's been.
Q. You talked about the freshmen being big eyed, yet you have a true freshman punter (Landon Foster). Do you worry about him?
COACH PHILLIPS: He can handle the pressure. He's a different breed. We've had two freshmen out there at that position (Tim Masthay and Ryan Tydlacka) since we've been here. He's no different than those guys.
He's a relaxed guy. Not has he just been a punter, he's been an athlete in games. So I feel good about him. He'll do well for us. Need him to be consistent in punting, punting the right direction.
Q. You had 20 sacks last season, four against Louisville. Are you comfortable you can get pressure on the quarterback again this season?
COACH PHILLIPS: Our pressure package is the way we have to get to people. You don't see a lot of people getting pressure on quarterbacks with four down anymore. You used to see a lot of 16, 17 sacks in a season by one guy. You don't see that a lot. When you see a lot of sacks, it comes from linebackers, it comes from secondary people, it comes from the corners.
It's just one of the things that he likes to do, bring in the weak side corner, so do we. That's what people do, how they get pressure. You don't
see people getting pressure with the four‑down front anymore.
Q. Louisville was picked to finish first
in their league and they are a top-25 team. Do you like going into this game as the underdog?
COACH PHILLIPS: I do. I mean, what a great opportunity for us. We've played a lot of top‑25 teams, come out on top on some. This is a great opportunity for us to play against a top‑25 team in our first game.
Q. Anything to the idea to setting a tone with the first game?
COACH PHILLIPS: It's not overrated. You do have to set a tone. It's an important game. I hear about how important it is for us.
They're saying the same thing up the road also. It's an important game. Everybody's first game is important. You think it's not important down at Alabama, Georgia, wherever? It's important to set the tempo and tone for the season.
Again, the team that wins this thing comes out of this thing with momentum. We need the momentum, and so do they need the momentum. That's why it will be a great game. Regardless of who is favored, who is in the top 25, it will be a great football game.
Q. Do you feel better going into the first game this year than you did last season?
COACH PHILLIPS: Felt pretty good last year, too, going into the first game. Just didn't execute, make plays we needed to make last year. But I feel better about our depth at some of the play‑making positions.
I thought we had a couple play‑makers at the wide receiver. We didn't show last year. I think we have more depth at the play‑making position this year than we did last year. I feel really good about Max Smith. He's playing at a real high level, getting the ball out of his hands. Those things are important in moving the football.
Again, I talked about that 98‑yard drive that we had (in scrimmage). We didn't turn the ball over, didn't put the ball on the ground, didn't have any penalties. We have got to be a clean football team on Sunday.
(Question regarding motivational speech)
COACH PHILLIPS: Isn't that what Lou would say? We're not as good as those guys. They have a fullback that looks just like this. I don't know how we're going to stop them, I really don't (laughter).
Then on Saturday (Holtz would say), ‘They got no chance, Joker. We just execute the plan.’
Q. (Question regarding Louisville’s defensive pressure up front last season …)
COACH PHILLIPS: Yeah, it was a combination. They were penetrating defense up front, got a lot of pressure. I'm not sure how many sacks they had, maybe six sacks. They did a really good job of penetrating our offensive line.
The thing we can't do, it's hard to call a game, I've tried to do it when you have second‑and‑14, third‑and‑15. What we have to do is continue to get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. I'd rather play on second‑and‑10 than I would second‑and‑15 any day. I just think it's really hard to start making calls.
You get third‑and‑long, you get all those exotic blitzes that everybody's running, including us, that are hard to manage. They really are. They're really hard to manage, especially with the personnel people are putting in the game. A lot faster personnel in the game on third‑and‑longs. It becomes hard to protect it. It becomes really hard to manage it.
Q. Last year, the stat line showed that the offensive totals were the same for both teams except that you all had trouble running the football? How do you change that this season?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, if you look at those guys, look at the stats on those guys, one thing they do, they don't allow you to run the football. Again, they get you into those third‑and‑longs, then here comes everything. You name it, they got it.
So, you know, if you can't run the ball, get yourself into a manageable third down, we like to be third‑and‑four, what do you defend? You defend the line, the pass? You got to defend both. You get third‑and‑four plus, you probably have to throw the football to make that or you get booed (laughter).
The thing we have to do is keep ourselves in a manageable third. We have a third‑down scrimmage. It was a great teaching moment for us. Our defense was 50%. It was third‑and‑shorts, our offense, they was feeling pretty good about themselves. Third‑and‑shorts, better be around 95% in third‑and‑shorts. We have to get ourselves in those types of situations, which then allows you ‑ what we were last year, 28%, 30% in third down ‑ I can tell you this, we did not have a lot of third‑and‑shorts. We've had a lot of third‑and‑shorts and made those. We were at 95% to 90% on third downs.
The thing we have to do is run the ball efficient on first and second downs. We don't always want to be running the ball. But we have to be able to run the ball well enough to get ourselves into manageable third downs.
Q. The team that usually wins the running game battle wins this game. Why is that?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, I mean, it definitely helps. Time of possession, it helps keep the defense off the field, keep those guys fresh. It's an attitude also. When you run the ball at people, I mean, when we run the ball, when they run the ball, we run attitude plays. It's downhill, stop me if you can. People coming right at each other. I think that sets the tone.
We want to run the ball, okay? Sometimes running the ball might be a little flare screen behind the line of scrimmage. Don't go on the stats as a run, but it is a run. It's a toss sweep. Same with bubble screens. Those are toss sweeps for us.
(Talked about Coach Washington’s saying of getting at least four yards.) We got to get the team four yards, okay? I've never heard it said like that, but you mention it to our players, they understand what it means. Get the team four yards. When we throwing flares, when we throwing the bubble screens, then whatever comes after four yards, it's a bonus.
Q. When did Tyler Brause start to take control of the starting position?
COACH PHILLIPS: Started making a move when Malcolm screwed up. Malcolm couldn't get lined up, missed some checks. (But) Malcolm (has) closed the gap. That's a day‑to‑day competition. We listed him (Brause first) because we had to. We probably should have said 'or' because Malcolm is making a push to start on Sunday.
Again, all these guys are competitive, okay? Everybody wants to start. Sometimes you get people's attention by moving them down. I think we got Malcolm's attention. He's put more time into his thing, working harder, concentrating more. He's definitely made a push to be the starter on Sunday also.
Q. Should we read anything into Demarco Robinson not being at the top of the depth chart?
COACH PHILLIPS: I wouldn't read anything into that. Demarco Robinson, I'm not going to say how he made a play every day, (and now is) not getting any opportunities. He will play and play a lot.
Q. Last year, you were frustrated by the number of X (explosion) plays. Where are those going to come from this season?
COACH PHILLIPS: We got to take shots also. We got to take more shots, calling plays. I think our protection schemes will allow us to protect long enough that we can get the ball down the field, stretch the field a little bit.
We were not a team that could stretch the field down the field last year. This year we felt we had to focus on that a little bit more. Demarco is really key on that. He's a guy that's really fast, great leaping ability. Saturday he leaped over a defensive back, took one 70 (yards) again. Every scrimmage we've made, he made a play like that. We have to give him the opportunity. You'll see Demarco Robinson.
Q. Two years ago against Louisville you hit an X play to start the game to La’Rod. Are you comfortable doing that again?
COACH PHILLIPS: Well, we called some plays like that last year. They didn't always work out, the X plays. We didn't get behind them. Sometimes had to drop them off.
But we want to stretch the field. Got to get people off of us. Like I'm saying, we'll do it in the first place, but we got to do it, do a lot throughout a game.