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Notebook: Wildcats embracing underdog role in season opener

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UK will travel to Louisville to face the rival Cardinals at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) UK will travel to Louisville to face the rival Cardinals at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A peek at the polls or the newspaper is all it takes to realize Kentucky is the underdog in its looming season-opening matchup with Louisville.

Preseason projections have the Wildcats toward the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, while the Cardinals are the frontrunner for a BCS bid out of the Big East. Accordingly, home-standing U of L is supposed to win the annual Governor's Cup showdown according to most, and by a significant margin according to many.

It's somewhat counterintuitive, but the Wildcats actually prefer it that way.

"I think everybody likes being the underdog," sophomore quarterback Max Smith said. "You go out and try to prove yourself. You've got to like being an underdog and that's what we are."

There seems to be no more powerful motivator in sports these days than being told you are not going to win a game. Teammates band together at the thought of being the only believers, while coaches point to doubters outside the locker room.

"What a great opportunity for us," head coach Joker Phillips said. "We've played a lot of top- 25 teams, come out on top on some. This is a great opportunity for us to play against a top-25 team in our first game."

Phillips - as well as Cardinal coach Charlie Strong - coached under the man perhaps best-known for playing the underdog role. Lou Holtz perfected the habit of talking up an opponent publicly all, only to go out on Saturday and win. In fact, Phillips jokingly invoked Holtz's name a season ago when Strong declared Kentucky the heavy favorite when the Cats and Cards matched up in 2011.

The roles are reversed in 2012 and, fittingly, Phillips broke out his impression of Holtz in a press conference on Monday.

" 'I don't know how we're going to stop them, I really don't,' " Phillips said in his best Dr. Lou voice, which you can listen to and watch in this video.

As for Phillips' players, they weren't about to provide any bulletin-board material for their opponents. No bold proclamations about an upset victory were made, only assurances that fans can expect to see maximum effort come 3:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN.

"I don't want to say anything," defensive end Collins Ukwu said. "Hopefully you won't be surprised to see how hard we play, but I can tell you we will play very hard this game."

QB Smith taking on underdog role too

Max Smith has the luxury of some experience gained as a freshman. He showed off some his strengths late in the season, but at the same time, he knows he has plenty of work ahead.

"I've got to prove it to you," Smith said. "I haven't done anything. I haven't proven anything to anyone, so that's what I'm here to do. Just prove that I can play and move the ball up and down the field and hopefully score some touchdowns."

Smith may not yet have proven himself to fans and pundits, but he has done enough to win the starting job over an experienced senior and get his coach excited.

"He's been really efficient in how consistent he is, throwing strikes, which is putting the ball at eye level for receivers," Phillips said. "I like the way he operates."

Smith's accuracy is what has most often elicited the praise of his coaches, but his understanding of the offense and how defenses will try to attack him could be even more important.

"You'll see a more confident player," Phillips said. "Last year as a true freshman everything was new to him. Especially seeing our defense, there's nothing he hasn't seen. There's nothing that can confuse him that he hasn't seen. You'll see a more confident, more relaxed Max Smith."

Smith may be more confident and relaxed heading into his sophomore season, but that doesn't mean he's not still prone to some pregame butterflies.

"I'm nervous for every game," Smith said. "Nothing's really going to change. I've been nervous every game, even if we played a really bad team in high school. I'd be nervous for that game. That's just how I am. Nerves are a part of it. If I'm not nervous, then something's wrong."

Depth chart intrigue

Media in attendance at Monday's luncheon were sure to arrive early, as the notes package distributed to members of the press contained an updated depth chart - which you can view here. A starter and a backup were unveiled at each position and 22 of the 46 players listed on two deep on offense and defense are either sophomores or freshmen. That excludes special teams, where UK will start a true freshman (Landon Foster) at punter and redshirt freshmen at both long snapper and holder.

True freshmen appearing on the depth chart are Jordan Swindle (left tackle), Foster, DeMarcus Sweat (kick returner), Dyshawn Mobley (kick returner), Fred Tiller (cornerback) and J.D. Harmon (cornerback). Harmon's appearance on the two deep is particularly striking given that the freshman only moved to corner at the beginning of fall camp. In fact, Harmon will be the first defensive back to enter the game in nickel packages.

"He's done an unbelievable job," Phillips said. "He's a real physical guy. He's a real long guy. Stronger than most freshmen that come in here in the secondary."

Notable exclusions among the true freshmen are Mobley and Justin Taylor at running back and Sweat and A.J. Legree at wide receiver, but they weren't left off because they aren't going to play.

"Those other guys will play," Phillips said of the wide receivers. "You worry about those guys getting big eyed right off the bat. But they'll play. They'll play a lot."

"It's tough to get in the two deep," Max Smith said. "It's learning the playbook. Our playbook is pretty complex, but I see them definitely helping out this season any way they can. I see them definitely getting on the field at some point."

Smith was a part of the most discussed battle for a starting role, but quarterback wasn't the most competitive position. At weakside linebacker, sophomore Tyler Brause is listed as the starter over Malcolm McDuffen. Brause came on strong during fall camp, overtaking McDuffen after being listed as his backup when the last depth chart was released. McDuffen has since responded.

"That's a day-to-day competition," Phillips said. "We listed (Brause) because we had to. We probably should have said 'or' because Malcolm is making a push to start on Sunday."

UK remaining relatively injury-free

Phillips starts each of his Monday press conferences with a rundown of his team's injury report. This time a year ago, that took quite a bit longer. UK has remained relatively healthy throughout fall camp. There are bumps and bruises, but major injuries have been few and far between.

"We are as healthy as we've ever been around here," Phillips said, "and that's the key to success in this, the 2012 season."

Tight end Jordan Aumiller is "day to day" with plantar fasciitis, while La'Rod King and PC Cobble were given days off recently to allow for rest. One player who will be out for the Louisville game is running back Josh Clemons, who had his knee scoped and cleaned last week.

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