Joker Phillips held his weekly press conference on Monday as Kentucky begins to prepare for a home matchup against Ole Miss on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The UK head coach addressed a number of different topics, ranging from this week's opponent to his team's injury situation to keeping his Cats confident and motivated. Here are a few of the most prominent storylines:
Newton, Smith to compete at quarterback
Maxwell Smith's strong play in UK's loss to Mississippi State over the weekend led Phillips to say after the game that there would be a competition this week at quarterback between Smith and Morgan Newton. The freshman completed 26-of-33 passes in defeat, orchestrating a Wildcat offense that moved the ball very effectively throughout the second half.
Phillips' tune was the same on Monday. No decision is forthcoming and Phillips said a one may not be made until late in the week. Both Smith and Newton will have opportunities in practice to show they deserve the starting job.
"We will compete with those two guys this week, see which guy gives us the best chance to win this game," Phillips said. "Both will get reps with the ones and the twos and we'll find out which one and decide which one we feel like gives us the best chance to win versus Ole Miss."
The reasons Smith played on Saturday were ankle and shoulder injuries sustained by Newton. The coaching and training staffs determined the injuries would not allow Newton to protect himself, so Smith stepped in. Phillips said Newton "should be fine" for practice and the game this week and he expects the junior to handle the competition well.
"If you're any type of competitor, and I think Morgan is a big time competitor," Phillips said, "you want the competition."
Phillips strongest evidence of Newton's competitiveness and dedication to the team was his demeanor on the sideline while Smith was in the game.
"When Max Smith was in the game on the sideline, I went over to try to find Morgan, and he's sitting beside Max and talking to him about here's what's going on," Phillips said. "A guy who doesn't want the competition would have said, 'hey, you're on your own, big fella.' But Morgan was trying to help him, help this football team."
Just a week ago, it appeared Newton was in line to start the rest of the season. Smith had struggled in his two previous appearances in relief and seemed headed for another rough outing against Mississippi State, taking a sack on his first play, but he settled in from there.
Smith was praised for his work ethic and dedication during the summer, but with school work and the fact he's been the backup, his intensity may not have been quite as high as the season has progressed. Phillips expects him to return his summer form having gotten a taste of action this week and having to put into practice everything he thought he knew when he was watching from the sideline.
"The intensity level is not as (high) as it was in the summer because it's just human nature," Phillips said. "He hasn't been a starter, and I think that'll change here this week, because a lot of times when you don't play, you think you know more than you really know."
Wildcats not lacking drive, determination
With preseason talk about competing for titles in 2011, UK's 3-5 start to the season has been disappointing to players and coaches alike. With some of those goals for year out of reach, motivation and effort would seem to a concern the rest of the way, but Phillips has seen no reason
"Our guys have shown up every week and went about their business the right way," Phillips said. "This is an important week because it gets tougher and tougher every week. You know, some of your goals start slipping away from you every week now. So we have to continue to keep them going, but thus far it has not been very tough (keeping players focused and motivated)."
The Wildcats had their sights set on bigger things coming into 2011, but there is plenty to play for over the final four games.
"We've still got a chance to have a special season," Phillip said. "(We) still (have) a chance to reach some of our goals. You have to get up every week. Everybody's in this game to play, and when you come to play, you have to play with emotion."
Big play ability of Ole Miss presents challenges
Like UK, Ole Miss has struggled in SEC play this season, as the Rebels are 0-5. Early in the season, the Rebels were unable to move the ball consistently on offense, but have since inserted Randall Mackey as full-time starter and have made progress. Ole Miss has scored 47 points in its last two SEC games and averaged 376 total yards. Of particular concern is the offense's "home run ability."
Running back Brandon Bolden averages 5.7 yards per carry, while fellow back Jeff Scott leads the team with 472 yards on the ground. Scott is also a dynamic returner and has taken a punt back for a touchdown.
"They're averaging 27 yards punt return, which is huge," Phillips said. "I'm not sure we've had 27 (punt return) yards total all year."
Defensively, Phillips pointed out linebacker Mike Marry and cornerback Charles Sawyer as players to watch out for. Marry leads the team with 63 tackles, 4.5 of which have gone for loss, while Sawyer has four interceptions on the season including one he took back for a 96-yard touchdown.
Sanders, other injured Cats healing well
Running back Raymond Sanders missed the Mississippi State game with a sprained ankle, but has improved enough that he is expected to practice on Tuesday. Other Wildcats coping with injury are fullback D.J. Warren, defensive tackle Mister Cobble and running back CoShik Williams are all preparing as if they will play Saturday.