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Spring football notes: Practice opens Wednesday

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Joker Phillips held a press conference on the eve of spring practice. (UK Athletics) Joker Phillips held a press conference on the eve of spring practice. (UK Athletics)
It's officially spring, and while baseball season is in full tilt and the basketball teams are making late season runs in the NCAA Tournament, football is getting ready to ramp up.

Spring football practice starts Wednesday for the Kentucky football team, with the returning players looking to make their moves up the depth charts. Preparations for the 2012 football season have already begun in the weight room and other off-field activities, but Wednesday marks the day that the real work begins as this team looks to make strides to improve themselves for the fall.

Kentucky football head coach Joker Phillips spoke Tuesday on what he hopes to see from his team in the coming weeks. Here are a few highlights from Phillips' comments to the media:

Injury update

Kentucky will be without some of their elder statesmen during the spring session due to some bumps and bruises. Senior quarterback Morgan Newton will participate in spring practices, but will be held out of throwing drills while rehabbing after an injury to his throwing arm last season. This will leave Maxwell Smith as the starter on the depth chart with Jacob Russell taking second-team repetitions. Senior defensive end Collins Ukwu will be held out due to a labrum injury. Another fellow senior in wide receiver Gene McCaskill will be day-to-day as they continue to monitor his knee. McCaskill missed the entire 2010 season due to reconstructive knee surgery. And sophomore running back Josh Clemons is a guy that the UK staff will keep an eye on and could be day-to-day. Clemons season ended early in his rookie campaign due to a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery. Punter Joe Mansour will miss the first day or two with strep throat.

Improvements in the weight room

Joker was very high on the improved fitness and size that some of his players made in the off season so far. He commended strength coach Rock Oliver for the hard work he has put in to get these guys bigger and stronger to look and play like SEC-caliber players in order to contend with their competition in conference. 

"Also excited about what Coach Oliver has been doing in the weight room with some of these guys, weight gains and weight losses we've had since January when they returned back. But they've done a really good job. I think a lot of that had to do with the way we finished in the last couple games," said Phillips.

Phillips talked about his offensive line getting into better shape, commenting that Zach West and Darrian Miller put on some weight while Larry Warford shed 16 "much needed" pounds, and is looking "really, really good, moving really well." He also mentioned Shaquille Love a young offensive guard coming in at 301, who could see some time this season. Ronnie Shields added 14 pounds to get up to 245, leading Joker to believe they could use some three tight end packages if need be. Running back CoShik Williams put on an additional 10 pounds, Mister Cobble is down to 332 pounds at the defensive tackle position, and fellow tackle Donte Rumph is "in the best shape ever" according to Phillips, all the way down to 303 pounds.

Incoming freshman class an exciting one

The incoming crop of freshmen have a chance to contribute next season. With six defensive starters no longer on the roster, underclassmen will have to fill the roles, and Joker thinks the incoming class, a deeper class than last season, can make an impact. Joker singled out tailback, defensive back, and special teams as areas where he expects freshmen to contribute immediately, but also said a freshman has a chance to compete for time at quarterback. Patrick Towles is an impressive prospect with big-time tools and credentials. Joker said that he thinks "he can handle it" when it comes to playing the quarterback in the SEC as a freshman, but it will be important to familiarize him with the "verbiage" of the offense. "He has to understand how to say it and sell it to the huddle," said Phillips. Towles will have to adjust to the speed of the college game, especially in the SEC, in order to see time this year.

Seniors need replacing

Replacing players like Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Stuart Hines is not going to be easy, but it is necessary. Phillips said that while Trevathan was a great player and made great strides after his first two seasons, they have to replace him. "Everybody is replaceable," according to Phillips, and the plan to do just that.

Junior linebacker Avery Williams hopes to be that guy. Williams has seen a lot of action, more so than Trevathan at this time in his career. West will be looked upon to fill the void left by Hines on the offensive line. Hines was a vocal leader on the unit, and a beefed up West will need to assert himself early. Miles Simpson, Cartier Rice and Martavius Neloms will be guys that defensive coordinator Rick Minter looks to fill the roles left behind by Guy, Randall Burden, and Anthony Mosely in the defensive backfield.

Joker is really excited about what some of these young players can do for this team going forward.

"The thing that makes you really excited is seeing those young guys out there
flying around. When you look out there, there was a ton of young true freshmen making plays on both sides of the football, majority of defense," said Phillips.

Tennessee win still paying dividends

Phillips spoke to the sense of accomplishment that this team felt as they finally got over the hump of a 26-year streak that Tennessee had held over UK. The win carries a lot of momentum going into this spring season and into the fall, especially for what it meant for the younger guys. The win itself was not only a big lift for the program, but Joker said the way that this team rallied around Matt Roark who filled in as emergency quarterback "brought us closer." 

"I think there was a sense of understanding how we have to win here," said Phillips. "Yeah, there's going to be times we have to win and score 40 points, but sometimes you got to win that a way. I think that's what helped us going into this off season."

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