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Catching up with UK football: Phillips' exposure part of smooth transition

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Joker.jpgThe transition was seamless and the move has been consensually hailed as the right one.

When Joker Phillips took the whistle from former coach and program-changer Rich Brooks in January, he had formulated a perfect plan in how to carry the program forward and onto the next step. The two-year waiting period behind Brooks was the perfect time to watch from a distance and figure out how to run a program, not only between the yardage markers but off the field as well.

That valuable knowledge that Phillips gained as the coach-in-waiting has been pretty apparent in his first six months on the job. Phillips has been steadily building a brand and name that will carry the past into the future.

In making more than 50 public appearances since his official promotion, whether it's at other UK sporting events, the creation of a captains breakfast or the four-city GAM3DAY READY tour that Phillips and his staff have been promoting over the last week, it's been a team-wide mission to stress to fans, current players and recruits that the program is moving only forward with Phillips at the helm.

"There is a lot of people that still don't know that Joker Phillips is the head coach," Phillips said in Louisville on Tuesday, the final stop of the tour. "We're trying to get that message out there."

Phillips agreed that it's even more important to get exposure and put a face with a name in the transition season of his first year on the job.

However, Phillips made sure to point that this last week's tour is more than just the UK program. It is also about giving back to the community and using the state-wide interest of football to bring youth together.

UK donated a $15,000 grant to each one of the four communities, which can be used at the discretion of each town's respective community board for football equipment, new park facilities, etc. Each participating youth also received a free GAME3DAY READY gear pack that included a shirt, water bottle and other UK items.

"The concept is just to try to bring some awareness to the kids, to get outside to the parks, to eat right, stay healthy and make sure they're doing the things in the classroom that they need to do," Phillips said. "It's part of what we call 'Operation Win,' which is the classroom, the community and also winning in any athletic events they might play in."

Set up in the middle of a park on the outskirts of a low-income, urban community, Phillips preached to the kids the importance of school. With football drills, giant inflatable games and music as the backdrop, a reporter asked Phillips why UK chose Shawnee Park as its Louisville location, to which Phillips responded why not.

"This is where most of the kids that I've recruited from Louisville come from," Phillips said. "I've definitely been here. ...  We've been to Hyden, we've been to Central City, Danville, (and) we'll continue to try to get throughout the state in the upcoming years."

Phillips displayed the same jovial attitude with the kids during skill-based activities that he has spread across the state throughout his first few months. During one such drill, Phillips lent his belt to a youth that had on shorts too big for his frame.

"Fun, a lot of fun," Phillips said of his experience with the GAM3DAY READY tour. "Just seeing how appreciative that the people are of the different cities that we have been in and how warm they've been to us and to the UK family."

Phillips' concerted effort to branch the Kentucky brand across the far corners of the state has taken on a very similar feel to men's basketball head coach John Calipari's first few months on the job a year ago.

After Calipari had toured the state, shook hands with Kentucky's citizens and spread his message to the Commonwealth, he expressed his enjoyment with the state's passion and support. However, it was right around the end of Calipari's summer tour that he also mentioned he was ready to get to his team and get down to work.

Phillips no doubt has an eye for the season opener at Louisville on Sept. 4, calling it a huge game for the momentum of the rest of the season, but unlike his basketball colleague, he said he is looking forward to a little vacation time before taking on his first full season as head coach.

"We've still got a lot of work to do and I want to recharge my batteries," Phillips said. "I'll recharge my battery, but when August the 5th (the first day of fall camp) hits, we'll be ready to go."

The first-year coach isn't running on empty, though. In fact, despite a much more demanding schedule, the transition has been smooth sailing for Phillips.

"I wouldn't say it's been hectic," Phillips said. "I know (rest) is what I have to do. I wouldn't say I'm a big rester anyway, but everybody says you need to rest. This has not been taxing on me. This is what I do. I go."  

EARLY RECRUITING RETURNS POSITIVE: If there was one glaring concern with the transition across the fan base, it was over what would happen with recruiting. With the man that turned the program headed for retirement, would the newfound interest in the Kentucky program among prospective student-athletes disappear?

Not so far.

According to Phillips, UK has already secured 14 commitments (Phillips cannot talk specific names until the recruit has signed a national letter of intent), far more than last year at this time.

"It's going well," Phillips said of the early returns on the recruiting trial. "We've been really aggressive, which has given us 14 commitments at this time. We'll continue to be aggressive, but now we've got to be more aggressive in some need-place areas: offensive line, defensive line and the linebacker positions."

Phillips earned a reputation as a nationally respected recruiter years ago, but there are almost always de-commitments during times of transition. That has fueled a minority of speculation about the talent crop of players committed for the upcoming years.

"The quality - we're not going to take bad players," Phillips said. "I can tell you that now. You might make a mistake, but knowing that a guy is a bad player, we're not going to do that. Last year at this time, how many commitments did we have? Two. OK. The word was 'Oh, dang, we can't win. What's wrong with our recruiting? They're getting players. Nobody wants to come here.' This year we've got 14 and everybody talks about the quality. It's one of those catch-22 type situations."

Contrarily to some pessimistic message board banter, the quality that is starting to add up might be the best the program has seen in some time.

"I think we've done a good job of developing players," Phillips said. "We looked at how many (former players) would be in NFL camps and we had 19 kids in NFL camps in the last seven years. I think most of them were the last three years, dating back to Wesley Woodyard and Dicky Lyons and those guys. I think we're doing a good job of not only identifying kids but developing kids."

Phillips also attributes the recent boost in recruiting to the ability to identify players early in the process.

"We're not afraid to be the first offer," Phillips said.

The key now is keeping those commitments even when other high-major programs start to "nibble."

LOCKE EXPECTED TO BE BACK: Despite a cracking the ulna bone in his left forearm during a moped accident in early June, senior tailback Derrick Locke is progressing on schedule and is expected to be back well before the beginning of fall camp.

"Locke will be fine," Phillips said. "Two years ago when he was rehabbing the knee, I would go by the training room and we had Eastern Kentucky about the fifth or sixth game. I would tell him just relax and make sure you get back for the Eastern Kentucky game. He would always throw a comment, 'I'm going to be ready for the first game.' "

While Phillips didn't offer an exact timetable for Locke's return, his only concern with UK's leading tailback was the ability to keep him healthy throughout the season.

"We've just got to get Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb to the game," Phillips said. "Those two guys know what to do. They will be two of our most well-conditioned players. We'll get them reps, but we've also got to get them to the game also."

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