LEXINGTON, Ky. – The University of Kentucky football team hit the practice fields for the first time this week to begin preparation for its Southeastern Conference contest with Arkansas on Saturday in Fayetteville. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET at Donald. W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Wildcats practiced for two hours Tuesday morning on a beautiful, but chilly, day at the Tim Couch Practice Fields. After practice, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and defensive coordinator Rick Minter spoke with the media about the team’s preparation. Both coordinators have had to deal with injury problems over the past few weeks, but like head coach Joker Phillips, they have stuck to the team motto: “next one up.”
“We are fighting through some things and its ‘next one up’ is our motto,” Minter said. “We have some DBs hurting on the back end and some young guys trying to step up and assume their roles. We have guys that are day-to-day, but whether that day comes (this week), who knows.”
Minter said the last thing he, or the team, can do is feel sorry about the injuries.
“This is life, it really is,” Minter said about the misfortunate of injuries. “Whether it’s Murphy’s Law for this team right now, who knows? Things happen and they don’t always go the way we want them to. What are we going to do? Wallow in self-pity or make lemonade out of the lemons being dealt to use? We are going to suck it up and tighten up our bootstraps and make sure our guys can execute the things we call on Saturday and go out there and go against a great quarterback and a good football team, a team that has finally found themselves offensively last week. We will feel good about the guys we’ll take to Fayetteville.”
One thing Minter has not questioned with his players on defense is their effort.
“The kids are great and they are trying extremely hard, they really are,” Minter said. “They are giving us all they got. Our guys up front are playing solid football, our linebackers are getting better each and every week and our young corners that are getting to play -- those are great opportunities for them and they are stepping up. We really, knock on wood, have not been hurt very often at the cornerback position, which was our biggest fear in August once we lost some kids (and wondered) who was going to step up. Well, opportunity came, they stepped up and Cody Quinn seized that moment, (J.D.) Harmon and (Fred) Tiller seized those moments and Cartier (Rice) is playing like a senior. The linebackers are beginning to settle in a little bit better but now we have some growing pains at the safety position.”
As for the challenges that Arkansas’ offense presents, Minter said there are a lot. The Razorbacks rank second in the conference in passing offense and fifth in the conference in total offense. Minter said it all starts with their veteran quarterback Tyler Wilson.
“You name it, they can do it,” Minter said about Arkansas’ offense. “Tyler Wilson is a good quarterback; they got good ample receivers; they got a tight end that could be back this week that they have missed a lot; they have a good runner; they have solid big guys up front left over from Mike Summers a few years ago and they are coached very well; we will have to defeat all forces.”
Turning the page to the offensive side of the ball, Sanders’ biggest challenge has been the rotation of quarterbacks he has had to prepare over the last few weeks because of injuries. Sanders admitted the challenges injuries at that position pose to an offense, but pointed out the lack of cumulative reps as a key issue.
“The great thing about having one guy (a consistent starter) is he continues to get better with all the practice reps and the game reps,” Sanders said. “When you have to change as much as we have changed all the cumulative effect of all the reps is lost. I think the guys try to make the most of their reps in practice and learn from their mistakes. The problem is that you are going to make mistakes until you get all the reps. I think we are starting to work through some of those mistakes.”
Sanders said that true freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow got most the first-team reps and some of the second-team reps in practice Tuesday in order to try to prepare him as much as possible. Sanders said getting Whitlow as many reps as possible is critical.
“Jalen was fortunate because he got second team reps today, too,” Sanders said. “I told Jalen, he is going to be tired everyday he leaves the practice field this week because I need to get him every rep I possibly can. If something happens to him and Morgan has to play or whoever goes in next is being done a tremendous disservice this week, but our best opportunity to win is to get Jalen all the reps he can get and see if we can get through some of those mistakes in practice and hopefully make him that much better on Saturday.”
Other than sophomore Maxwell Smith, who is out indefinitely with an ankle injury, Whitlow has seen the most time at quarterback this season. Whitlow played nearly every snap the last two weeks due to injuries to Smith and fellow true freshman Patrick Towles. Sanders said Whitlow continues to improve, but he is especially looking for improvements in the passing game moving forward.
Sanders said if each team played the same style of defense and schemes then it would be easier to expand the playbook for Whitlow and develop more of a passing game. The challenge is each team is different and each team presents a new challenge and a new look to freshman quarterbacks.
“The hard part is if Arkansas played the same defensive scheme that Mississippi State did it would be easy to keep expanding a little bit,” Sanders said. “If Mississippi State had done the same thing South Carolina did it would have been easy to expand. But each defense is different. They present different issues and opportunities too. You take what you did last week and try to carry over as much as you can, but there is a certain amount of it you have to drop and add a few more things to take advantage of what they do.”
As for Arkansas, Sanders said the Razorbacks have similar packages and coverages as they have faced the last few weeks, but there are also come differences.
“Different coverage package and there is obviously some carry over in the coverage package but there are different coverages,” Sanders said. “Their blitz package is a little different than what we have seen. Up front, there are similarities but also some differences and they do a few different things up front than the last few teams have done. It is nothing we haven’t seen before but something Jalen hasn’t seen a lot of probably.”
Kentucky will return to the practice fields Wednesday.