Joker Phillips has been across the Commonwealth and even the country talking about how excited he is about the 2012 season. At Media Day on Thursday - one of the last events before players and coaches finally go to work on the field in fall camp - Phillips wasted no time in explaining why.
Before reporters asked him a single question, Phillips went into detail about what has him and the coaching staff buzzing.
"I'm excited because of the leadership that we have on this football team," Phillips said. "We have sat down and talked about who we thought were some of our leaders, and since January, that list has grown. It's doubled."
Phillips cited Max Smith, Mister Cobble, Miles Simpson and Avery Williamson, among others, as examples of players stepping up in the leadership department. During the offseason, Phillips has seen that leadership manifest itself in the team's level of dedication. As an example, Smith - a sophomore quarterback - took it upon himself to lead groups of players in independent film study. In fact, those study habits have prompted the staff to open the Nutter Training Facility at all hours.
"We've had to change our system of how we enter our building," Phillips said. "We're in the process of getting a system where our players can get in at any time. We've never had that. We've never had that where guys just can't wait to get in the building on the weekends, on their off days."
To take it a step further, Smith did something else unprecedented in seeking out freshman wide receiver DeMarcus Sweat as his roommate for fall camp. Recognizing the potential for the 6-foot-1, 192 pounder to contribute early and his eagerness to learn, Smith approached Director of Football Operations Nolan Jones.
"I thought DeMarcus is probably the best because of the way he just wanted to learn everything," Smith said. "He would walk by me, I'd give him a play and he'd shoot me a signal. I felt like he really wanted to learn and I was impressed with him when I threw one on ones with him and we did seven on sevens."
Smith is an example of the kind of character Phillips and his fellow coaches demand out of players they recruit. By emphasizing that, UK has a roster full of like-minded players ready to work toward a common goal.
"It matters, trust me, it matters the type of kids you have," Phillips said. "Can you trust them? Can we trust you? How much do they care about this football team? Are they committed? Are they committed to doing the things right all the time? And doing things right all the time, meaning, if I'm a corner and I'm supposed to lineup 12 yards inside the receiver. I've got to line up 12 yards, not 7 yards, 12 yards. And we're bringing kids into this program that are willing to do things right all the time."
Quarterback to headline fall full of competition
From wide receiver running back to safety to linebacker, starting spots are up for grabs. Phillips deems that kind of competition healthy and a sign of UK's developing depth. Plenty of attention will be devoted to those battles, but the spotlight will shine most brightly on the quarterbacks.
For the last time before a decision about a starter is made, UK's quarterbacks were available to the media. The thinking is that exposing Smith, Morgan Newton and freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow to repeated questions about the competition would be an unnecessary distraction.
"I want to make the decision at the quarterback position as fast as we possibly can," Phillips said. "I wish the decision was already made. It's not. The reason it's not is because of the competition that we have here."
Smith and Newton - who is fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery - have a leg up based on experience and familiarity with the offense, but Towles will be given every chance to compete.
"Patrick Towles figures into this," Phillips said. "He figures into it a lot. He's a guy that we've got to find out how much he can do he can make plays with his leg, with his arms. He's a smart guy who only threw 46 touchdowns last year and one interception. It's unbelievable."
Phillips was also sure not to exclude Whitlow from the mix, as the athletic Prattville, Ala., native has impressed over the summer. Quarterbacks are typically held back from contact in practices, but Towles and Whitlow will have a chance to play without red jerseys at times.
"We'll get a chance to compete as a live player in our offense for at least one scrimmage," Phillips said. "To see how they can play under fire. I think you need to do that also for freshman quarterback because they don't understand the speed which the game is played at this level."
Towles acknowledged he has already taken note of the speed of the game, but he has also noticed his competitors at quarterback trying to help him.
"Both Max and Morgan have gone out of their way to make sure the offense is translating well and that I'm doing well," Towles said.
After last season, Smith and Newton have plenty of experience in competing for a starting role. The two went head-to-head from the start of 2011, but were able to remain close nonetheless.
"We're good friends and we're just going to compete," Newton said. "It's fair competition. You don't try to do anything to hurt anybody else you're competing with. You help them as much as possible, but at the same time, you want to really work at it."
Smith might get tired of answering questions about who's going to start, but he certainly doesn't mind having to work for his spot.
"I love competition," Smith said. "I love it."
Moves in defensive backfield coming after roster hits
Media Day was full of optimism for the upcoming season, but it was not without a couple pieces of bad news. Phillips announced on Friday that a pair of defensive backs will miss the 2012 season. Redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey is academically ineligible, while true freshman Shawn Blaylock will have surgery to address a knee injury he sustained in high school on Aug. 7.
Caffey's loss is a particularly big blow, as the Atlanta native moved from running back to cornerback this offseason. He was projected as a starter at the position and coaches raved about his size and athleticism, though he was still certainly in the midst of an adjustment.
"We move on," Phillips said. "That's the reality now, and we'll focus on getting prepared for this season, and getting prepared to play the University of Louisville."
Caffey will remain with the team and participate in practice this fall.
Blaylock was also going to have a chance to compete at corner before the decision was made for him to undergo surgery, which created a need at the position. Accordingly, Phillips announced some shifts in the defensive backfield.
Martavius Neloms, who played corner his first two seasons before moving to safety last year, will return to his original position.
"When you start thinking about moving a guy to...corner, Martavius, because he's played there a couple of years, he's probably the most athletic safety that we have," Phillips said.
Freshman J.D. Harmon will also play cornerback, moving from wide receiver
Phillips enacts Twitter ban
Fall camp, which begins on Saturday, features a packed schedule for the Wildcats. From early in the morning until late at night, players and coaches will have practices, meetings, conditioning and weight-lifting sessions. With all that going on, Phillips has decided that Twitter does not fit into his team's busy agenda.
On Thursday, he informed his freshmen that the popular social-networking service was off limits through Aug. 15. Phillips planned to tell upperclassmen on Friday.
"We don't have time for it, first of all," Phillips said. If you see our schedule, we're up at 7 (a.m.), we're in bed at 11 (p.m.) and there is no time to relax, no time to Twitter. When do they do it? From the walk from the Nutter Center to the Commons Dining Hall. That's the only time they have, and I want that time spent visiting with their teammates."