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Notebook: Big plays the focus as Cats target improvement

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Kentucky will take on Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kentucky will take on Western Kentucky at 7 p.m. on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Heading into week two of the 2012 season, Kentucky had plenty to work on defensively.

Particularly since Joker Phillips laid out plans to involve more young players in the rotation, the Wildcats had to simplify things and simplify them quickly. After an abbreviated practice week, UK got a chance to see the results against Kent State, and they were mostly positive.

"We got the chance to get lined up," Phillips said. "We got a chance to come off the ball, come out of your hips, get your hands on people, get them off of you. There wasn't a lot of movement side to side.  There was a lot of movement going forward."

By making things a little less exotic, UK made things more about the Jim's and Joe's than X's and O's, as goes the old coaching cliche.

"When you simplify, you give guys a chance to win one-on-one battles," Phillips said. "You can't stop everything. There's not a defense out there that stop every play every down. Sometimes guys got to win one-on-one battles. don't think we gave our kids a chance in the first game to win one-on-one battles."

Hybrid safety/linebacker Miles Simpson won his share of those such battles, tying for the team lead with seven tackles, tallying one sack and recovering a fumble forced by a highlight-reel hit by Martavius Neloms.

"I feel like I improved a lot," Simpson said. "The whole defense did. Communication, getting to the spots we need tackling, we did a whole lot better."

The Flashes topped 400 yards of total offense in UK's 47-14 victory, but just 139 of those came in the final six drives of the game, during which time the Cats pitched a shutout. Kentucky incorporated more and more youngsters into the action as the game wore on and, by the time the final whistle sounded, six true freshmen had made a tackle.

The youth movement certainly bodes well for the future, but Phillips and defensive coordinator Rick Minter are concerned about fixing things in the present. Kent State had four big gains UK terms "X plays" - passes of 25 yards or more and rushes of 15 or more - and those must be cut out immediately. All four such plays came on Kent State's two touchdown drives and two directly resulted in scores, which only underscores their importance.

On the other side of the ball, the Cats have a similar concern. Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George each had long touchdown runs and DeMarcus Sweat an electrifying 56-yard catch and run, but the deep ball has been conspicuously absent from UK's otherwise effective offensive attack.

With Maxwell Smith completing 73 percent of his throws for over 300 yards a game and six touchdowns, it's difficult to quibble with his performance, but Phillips wants to see his quarterback make a calculated gamble or two.

"I like that he's taking what he likes and what he sees, but sometimes on our all go routes, we've got to give our receivers a chance," Phillips said. "That's the thing, give our receivers a chance, go up, and let those guys make a play for you."

Smith really only threw the ball vertically one time this past weekend and he missed La'Rod King narrowly when the senior wide receiver had a step on his defender. In a new no-huddle offense, UK faces a unique problem with deep passes: It's hard to practice them.

"The way we practice trying to play fast, we run our receivers to death anyway," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said after the Kent State game. "Sometimes it's hard to throw a lot of deep balls in practice because you're truly killing them."

Even though the Cats have a deep corps of receivers featuring seven players who have already made a catch, practice is incredibly demanding. To combat that, Phillips mentioned the possibility of practicing deep passes by having receivers 30 yards downfield and begin running when the quarterback hits his back foot on drop backs.

Whatever the solution, it's an issue that needs to be addressed. If Smith continues to complete pass after pass within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, defenses will begin to sit on those shorter routes.

Weekly depth chart watch

With the season now two weeks old, players are beginning to settle into roles more and more, but UK's newly released depth chart is not without a tweak here or there.

On offense, the only change is at one wide receiver spot, where Gene McCaskill has overtaken Daryl Collins as the starter. McCaskill had three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown against Kent State. The switch, though, is mostly cosmetic, as all of UK's wide outs are getting ample opportunities.

Defensively, the changes are more significant. Reflecting the way UK played this past weekend, Bud Dupree is now listed as the starter at weakside linebacker. Previously, Dupree was the starter at the defensive end/linebacker spot with Malcolm McDuffen and Tyler Brause at weakside linebacker. Freshman Khalid Henderson is now the backup on the weakside with Malcolm McDuffen as the third stringer. Pancho Thomas is now Avery Williamson's backup at middle linebacker with Tyler Brause behind him. Kory Brown has been added as a third stringer at hybrid safety/linebacker behind Simpson and Josh Forrest. Finally, senior Taylor Wyndam is the new starter at hybrid defensive end/linebacker with Dupree backing him up.

The Dupree-Wyndham shifting was all done in an effort to get the defense's best 11 players on the field at the same time. Previously, Wyndham had been the odd man out in the defensive scheme installed last year.

"It's a shame that a guy that's been around four or five years, played a lot of football, because we moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, he doesn't get to play as much," Phillips said. "He's got to rotate with another senior. So it was just an opportunity to get Taylor Wyndham on the field along with Bud."

Injury list still pleasantly brief

Inevitably, UK's remarkably short preseason injury report was going to get longer as the season wore on. But two weeks in, the Cats are still relatively healthy.

Running back CoShik Williams (back) and Josh Forrest (hip flexor) are termed probable for Saturday's game against Western Kentucky after missing this past weekend's game. Offensive lineman Trevino Woods (high ankle sprain) and tight end Gabe Correll (hip flexor) are both doubtful for Saturday's game against Western Kentucky. Josh Clemons (knee) and Glenn Faulkner (ankle), the only two Wildcats with long-term injuries, will be out this weekend.

Florida game selected by SEC Network

It's still 12 days away, but UK learned the television assignment for its first Southeastern Conference game against Florida on Sept. 22. The game will kick off at 12:21 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

As a reminder, Saturday's game against the Hilltoppers will be broadcast on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET.

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