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Wildcats shift focus to football, Senior Day after long bye week

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Defensive end Collins Ukwu has 38 tackles and a team-leading four sacks during his senior season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Defensive end Collins Ukwu has 38 tackles and a team-leading four sacks during his senior season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Bye weeks are supposed to give teams a breather during a grueling football season. They provide the chance to recover physically and mentally, serving as a break from what can become a monotonous weekly routine.

Kentucky's bye week was certainly anything but routine.

The decision that Joker Phillips would replaced at season's end was announced. At first, it looked as if Phillips would not coach out the final weeks of the season. Eventually, he decided it would be best for his players if he did.

Add all that up and you have a bye week that was more an emotional drain than a break. Nonetheless, the Wildcats kept their heads in the game and even managed to sprinkle in some fun.

"Practices have been good, upbeat," Phillips said. "We've had no problem with that part of the whole season. We've had some upbeat practices, been positive, had some fun. Again, you're so young, guys are just excited to be out there on the football field."

Opportunities for those young players to take the field in 2012 are dwindling quickly. UK has just two games remaining, the first of which is coming up against Samford on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Commonwealth Stadium. For a group of seniors, it will be the final chance to take the field in front of their home fans.

"I think it'll be fun and I'm just anxious to get back on the field honestly," senior defensive end Collins Ukwu said. "It's going to be pretty fun just playing in Commonwealth one last time."

Ukwu and his classmates will participate in Senior Night festivities before kickoff. The La Vergne, Tenn., native is looking forward to it all, but he wants to make sure he holds himself together when he's presented with his framed jersey.

"Hopefully I won't be boo-hooing and stuff like that," Ukwu said. "Hopefully I can keep my composure. My mom's going to be with me so that's going to be pretty fun. Hopefully I can stay intact and ready to win the game."

Ukwu's senior year hasn't gone as he envisioned, but persevering through the adversity of the last few months and the last week in particular has been something he'll carry for the rest of his life.

"I really learned a lot about myself this year and to keep fighting and just to keep looking forward," Ukwu said. "That's something that I know that I'll be doing on in the future."

While Ukwu is looking forward to the next phase of life - whether it's in football or elsewhere - his younger teammates are hoping to right the ship and reach bowl games as Ukwu did his first three years on campus. At the same time, they feel a responsibility to send the veterans off the right way.

"I'm not a senior, but I love every single one of those guys," junior tailback Jonathan George said. "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."

George and many other Wildcats also said they want to win the game for Phillips, the Kentucky native who has worn the Blue and White as a player and coach for more than two decades.

"To be around Coach Phillips all the time when we're not on TV on Saturday," junior defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said. "The Mondays and the Tuesdays with him when he can sit down and talk to you. He's just a great guy. Sometimes we just look at him as a head coach and that's all we see him as a head coach. But I got to meet him as a guy, and he's a great guy."

Phillips appreciates the sentiment, but he'd rather have the focus on his players.

"I don't need any treatment, special treatment or anything," Phillips said. "It's not my senior day. I want those guys that have been here and given all they have for this program to be rewarded."

With Phillips leading the way, practices at the Nutter Training Facility won't look any different this week even though the circumstances have changed radically.

"It's been business as usual," George said. "They coaches came and they haven't coached us any different. The players, we've been attacking every practice as if it was the same."

Where all the players want things to be different is on the field at Commonwealth. The Cats and the seniors in particular want to finish strong.

"We're just playing for each other because this is probably going to be the last time we'll ever play with each other," Ukwu said. "It's something that we just want to capitalize (on) and be better and win these last two games."

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