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Sending off seniors the first step toward UK's future

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Center Matt Smith is one of 19 Wildcats who will be honored as part of Senior Night festivities on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Center Matt Smith is one of 19 Wildcats who will be honored as part of Senior Night festivities on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Change is at Kentucky football's doorstep.

Sometime in the coming weeks and months, a new head coach will be named. He will then sit alongside Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and spell out his vision for the program, triggering an offseason of team and individual meetings, recruiting and practices designed to build toward an unprecedented level of success at UK.

But first, the Wildcats must close out the 2012 season. Looking to finish a disappointing season with strong performances in their last two games, the Cats hope to build some momentum heading into an offseason of transition beginning with a win over Samford on Saturday.

"For the season, for Coach (Joker) Phillips, for this team, it means everything," senior guard Larry Warford said. "No matter who the opponent is, going out with two wins is going to be the best thing that could happen."

When UK (1-9, 0-7 Southeastern Conference) takes on the Bulldogs (7-3, 5-3 Southern Conference) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, 17 seniors will be playing their final game in Commonwealth Stadium, and two more players - Sam Simpson and Steven Duff - will be honored as part of Senior Night festivities. The season has not gone as any of them hoped it would and they won't be directly involved in the new era of Kentucky football, but their teammates want to send them off on a high note.

"I'm not a senior, but I love every single one of those guys," junior tailback Jonathan George said on Monday. "This week, I feel like we're coming out practicing hard and I feel like we owe that to those guys. We're going to come out and attack this week and try to come out Saturday and get a big win for those guys."

As difficult as it has been for those seniors to go eight games without a win, the last 11 days - during which UK has not even played a game - have been the most trying. They have had to cope with the news that their head coach of the last three years would be replaced at season's end, but they haven't wavered in their focus.

"They mean the world," Phillips said of UK's seniors. "How they went about their business and how they went about their business through this time, that's big for me. All of them have a story."

From the already-graduated Collins Ukwu to All-SEC performer Larry Warford to the ever-unselfish Morgan Newton, there are too many stories to tell here, but UK senior captain Matt Smith represents his class well.

Smith grew up a Kentucky fan in Louisville. He has been a steady performer at center since his redshirt freshman season and started all but two games of his final three seasons. He has snapped the ball to five different quarterbacks - including one wide receiver - over the last two seasons, but has provided a steady presence amid all the uncertainty behind him. He is being recognized for all his work, both on and off the field.

This week, he was named one of eight finalists for the 2012 Wuerffel Trophy. The award is named after Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel and honors the college football player who best combines exemplary community service with outstanding academic and athletic achievement.

"I remember sitting in his home and talking to him about how he would grow here," Phillips said. "For him to be a finalist for this award, it shows how much he has grown here. He has an unbelievable family and that is where it started. He has just carried it on and it has helped with the process of him growing up. We are proud of him."

Smith is a two-year member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll and traveled to Ethiopia for a service trip this summer with Phillips and two teammates. All told, he has logged over 200 hours of community service as a Wildcat, but his time with the Salvation Army summer camp is most special to him. He was reminded by himself as a child by many of the youngsters he mentored during that experience.

"I know when I was that age, that I always looking up to the football players here at Kentucky and watching what they were doing," Smith said. "So I just tried to set a good example for those kids."

That, along with the fact that he eventually hopes to become a teacher and coach, is why he donated so much of his time, not for the recognition he might receive.

Smith was taking a cue from his coach in setting a good example for people that looked up to him. Knowing he will not be coaching beyond the next couple of weeks, Phillips has made clear his love for his players and the university he has so long represented by conducting himself with admirable class.

Nonetheless, there was a time that the man who has been such a significant part of the last three decades of Kentucky football considered not coaching final two games of 2012. Not wanting to take away from the attention this group of seniors deserves on the night of their final game, Phillips planned to step down immediately.

"I had my senior day," Phillips said on Monday.

Over the 24 hours during which he debated his decision, the seniors made it clear how much they wanted them there. Smith was one of those players, sending Phillips a long text message to let his coach know just how much his presence would mean.

"He always talks about family here and that's his big thing, that we stick together as a family," Smith said. "I just told him it wouldn't be the same, we wouldn't be a family if he didn't finish this out with us. He's been such a huge part of my life and my experience here that I really wanted him to come back and coach this team."

Smith and his fellow seniors figure to be in for an emotional evening on Saturday as they reflect on their four and, for some, five years in the program. Wide receiver La'Rod King said Warford is the most likely to cry when his jersey is presented to him and "My Old Kentucky Home" is played. Though Warford doesn't deny that shedding tears is a possibility, he does say he won't be the first.

"I would say it's going to be either Trevino (Woods) or La'Rod," Warford said. "And then I'm going to cry if I see them crying because it's a biological cue. I can't really help it. I'm not going to be embarrassed about it. I love this program."

Warford isn't ashamed because there's good reason to be emotional. These seniors are closing the chapter on a memorable chapter in their lives, particularly considering the relationships that they've built.

"This is the closest I've ever felt with a team since I've been here, as a whole team," Smith said. "It's been great camaraderie with everybody. The coaches have been great. Everybody's bought into things this year and it's just made it a lot more enjoyable even though we haven't been winning."

That closeness may not have translated to on-field results this season, but the seniors hope the character lessons they've passed on to the younger Cats help lay the foundation for future success.

"Things haven't turned out how we wanted to, but the biggest thing, regardless of how it is, you've got to help your program for the future," defensive end Taylor Wyndham said. "You have to get the young guys to do what they're supposed to, to do the thing right things."

Like Phillips, these seniors won't stop caring about UK football even though they will be moving on next season. What they want is for fans to help them say goodbye to it the right way and to generate some excitement heading into an uncertain time.

"Hopefully I've left a little impression on this team and this program," Smith said. "I know it's left an impression on me."

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