On Friday at the Lexington Convention Center, UK football held its annual Kickoff Luncheon, an event that offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said "signals the start of the football season."
The 400 or so UK supporters in attendance were treated to lunch, a pair of well-produced videos and comments from head coach Joker Phillips. Phillips repeated many of the same comments from yesterday's Governor's Cup Luncheon, but Sanders, co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter, Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart and new university president Eli Capilouto gave their perspectives on the 2011 season.
Here are some notes on what the coaches had to say:
- Following an introduction from Phillips, Sanders spoke about his offensive unit. Sanders, speaking at the event for the second time, said he received positive feedback for how funny he was the first time around. Jokingly, he said the amount of offensive talent lost to graduation and the NFL would not allow him to duplicate that performance. "I had somebody tell me earlier that they enjoyed hearing me speak last year, that I was funny and they were looking forward to hearing what I had to say this year," Sanders said. "You lose your starting quarterback, you lose your fullback, you lose your tailback and your top two receivers, you don't make any jokes."
- While there is a lot of offensive production to be replaced, Sanders is comforted by the strength and experience of his offensive line, although the unit isn't as deep as he would like. In his years in the game, a key ingredient to any successful team has been a good offense and having that in place puts UK in good position. "Every good football team I've been on or been a part of, the offensive line was the anchor," Sanders said. "They were the ones who kind of set the tempo for practice, so I'm excited about those guys."
- At the other skill positions, Sanders acknowledged there is work to be done. Raymond Sanders, Jonathan George and CoShik Williams are the only two experienced ball carriers returning that will see the field according to the offensive coordinator, but will be joined by younger guys who "had a really good spring." At wide receiver, Sanders said they have players who have been the third or fourth option, but never the first or second and he made it clear they need to improve. "We've got some guys who have played, but we've got to have some guys step up," Sanders said.
- At the quarterback position, Sanders is very comfortable with Morgan Newton. He even alluded to the fact that the junior, in Sanders' preferred mathematical analogy, had graduated to "calculus" while younger pupils like freshmen Maxwell Smith and Bookie Cobbins are being taught "algebra I".
- Minter was up next. Today was the first time I had heard Minter speak and I can attest that his reputation for passion and energy is well-earned. Minter took time to address the subject that is on the minds of most when talking about the UK defense: change. With Minter taking over primary responsibility of the defense this season, instituting a new, aggressive brand of defense, his players have been faced with a great deal of change. Those changes began to be instituted in December as the team prepared to play in their bowl game and in spring practices, but the transition is still a work in progress and maintaining a positive attitude toward that change will be crucial. "I think our kids felt back in December and into the winter that change is in the air," Minter said. "I hope we embrace change as something that can be good."
- As much talk as there has been about the new defensive scheme, the scheme will be meaningless if the players don't execute on Saturday's. "I know everybody's heard about the new scheme," Minter said. "It's overrated. It's what we can get our kids to know and believe in on game day." If the players execute, fans will see an "adjustable, adaptable and aggressive system", which Minter said is essential with the variety of different offenses that defenses encounter these days. Pinning Minter's defense down to a 3-4, 4-3 or 4-2-5 is impossible, because he makes it clear that UK will show all three looks this season.
- There has been some concern that UK did not have the personnel necessary to play all those different looks, but Minter says that is not the case. There were enough flexible Wildcats on the roster like Winston Guy, who will move to linebacker, and Martavius Neloms, who will move to safety, that Minter will fully institute his scheme. "(With) the guys we inherited here in December, I think we have enough guys on board to do the things that we want to do," Minter said.
- When Minter discussed goals for the upcoming season, he focused on lifting up Joker Phillips. He said if Phillips is recognized throughout the SEC and NCAA as a top coach that will mean everyone will have done their jobs. "We want our head ball coach to be the coach everybody talks about in the league," Minter said. "That's our goal as a staff: to make him coach of the year in the SEC. (If we do that) I think we'll all live with the results that came from that. It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."
- Phillips closed the event with a short but sweet speech that centered on the "Rise" theme for this year's Wildcats. Under Phillips and his predecessor, Rich Brooks, the football program has accomplished a great deal. To underscore that UK is a program on the rise, Phillips ran down a few of those accomplishments:
- The graduation rate among football players is 75 percent, up from 33 percent when Brooks took over eight years ago. That includes seven players on this year's roster that have graduated but still have eligibility remaining.
- Each season since 1999, UK has ranked in the top 25 in attendance nationally.
- Over the past three seasons, UK has defeated three top-10 opponents, including 2007 national champion LSU and 2010 SEC East champion South Carolina.
- UK is one of only five SEC schools to reach bowl games in each of the past five seasons.
- Thirty-two players have signed NFL contracts over the past four seasons.
- However, those involved with the program are not content: they want to continue the rise of UK football. "If you walk through the Nutter Center, you see the attitude (with which) these guys walk, the determination, the grit, the grind, the gleam in this team's eyes," Phillips said. "You'll see that we're going to continue to rise."