By - Ira D. Combs
Tri State Sports Media Service Inc.
Director / Syndicated Columnist
Make no mistake of what I'm about to reveal to you my loyal readers of this column , when Joker Phillips stepped up to the podium underneath the bowels of his precious Commonwealth Stadium to begin his 3rd season as Head Coach of his beloved Kentucky Wildcats he was as excited , animated , and confident as I've ever seen him during his football career as a player , assistant coach , coordinator , and now Head Coach .
I'm setting there with the rest of the state media contingent thinking how can he be so enthused and confident about his team and his own personal delimma with many of his fan base .
Was it all a schemed up ploy for the media to pick up on and sell to those disgruntled fans of Big Blue Nation ? The longer it went the more I bought into it and I've seen 44 years of UK football as an adult and experienced many of these opening remarks from around 9 or 10 different coaches .
Then it hit me .............. their is nothing more intoxicating and many times intriguing than being around today's youth especially the 18 to 22 year old age group . Sometimes they're a little cantankerous and will at times try to swallow an elephant then turn around an hour later and choke on a gnat as the old saying goes but they're never without confidence and enthusiasm plus they can forgive and forget especially forget any negative past they may have experienced .
I've learned over the past 8 1/2 years since I've been retired from high school athletics that even though the electronic quick fix age of american sports can sometimes be a little too much for those of us who are more traditional and old fashioned in our everyday lives as well as sports that it's very important and many times gratifying when we surround ourselves with youth in as many areas of our lives as possible .
Last friday at UK's annual football media days it was absolutely refreshing to be talking to and in general simply experiencing the college football players life thru the interview process .
After one day of interviews and general analysis of the team as well as the eye test after another winter and summer off season training program I've come to the conclusion the Kentucky football program is in much better shape than what may be the perception of the Fellowship of the Miserable Club who have dominated the social and electronic media scene since last November .
I'm not saying this program is ready to go from 5 - 7 to 8 - 4 or dare I say 9 - 3 in 2012 . What I am saying is this football team has more SEC type bodies across the roster than I've seen in several years but they are all just starting to grow and mature into their bodies as well as mature mentally and emotionally . When I looked into their eyes I seen enthusiasm and a will to win like I've never seen before in the same setting with the same team albeit with a few newcomers just brought into the program .
But most impressively I saw a group of football players and coaches who are really looking forward to proving their worth in the future ......... I hope they get the chance to do it together .
Part 2 - The Defensive Backfield
I sometimes get a little critical of my brethren in the media especially print media , although still after 7 1/2 years of writing this column and performing various other media responsibilities I still have a hard time considering myself an actual media person but I'll plow on and hopefully keep a friendship with a select few of them . It has been about 24 hours since UK's media festivities finished up and I've returned home to begin this week's column for release and all I've read and heard is how much of a bad blow it was to this years UK defense to lose sophomore DB Marcus Caffey .
Please , spare me this bit of drama , the guy has never played a snap at DB and wasn't recruited as a DB and just spent two full years of playing football in front of his entire coaching staff's eyes as a RB .
If he is so special to this years defense why is he just now starting his career at the position .
Free & Strong Safety
Let's begin with the UK safeties who are very green and untested but may be the most talented and biggest surprise of the 2012 season . Now that Joker Phillips has announced that Martavious Neolms has been moved back to corner it opens up more time for two prized recruits a year ago in young pups like Ashley Lowery and Glenn Faulkner .
Mikie Benton a 5' 11" 195 lb. Sr and Ashley Lowery a 6' 1" 205 lb. Soph. are listed as 1st and 2nd team respectively at one safety position while Glenn Faulkner a 6' 2" 185 lb. Soph. and Dakotah Tyler a 5' 11" 205 lb. Jr. are listed at 1st and 2nd string on the other side at safety .
Benton came in as an in state freshman walk on but has learned the trade well according to the coaching staff and has the utmost respect from everyone in camp , Tyler the lone junior in the backfield and one of the most athletic players on the UK roster had a spell that put him in the coaching staff's dog house not long ago and cost him some PT but he is back in good graces and reportedly ready too upgrade his position with solid SEC type play while Faulkner & Lowery are set to showcase their skills that made them high profile recruits just two years ago .
In coming freshman Josh Harris of Mason Co. and Sterling Wright of Miami , Florida will be pushing all these guys for reps in fall camp and may get on the field at some point if injuries occur but most of the incoming freshman are set to be red shirted if at all possible according to the defensive coaches .
Martavious Neolms a 6' 1" 186 lb. Sr. will start out as the shut down corner since his experience is at a premium with this years corner back crew and he will be backed up by a 6' 0" 195 lb. Soph. in Eric Simmons who has been put thru the wars of Alabama high school football in recent years plus one year of nickel back duty as a freshman at UK last year to fall back on early in 2012 .
Cartier Rice a 5' 10" 185 lb. Sr. who has been thru many SEC wars and seen his fair share of behind's that he's chased down the Commonwealth Stadium turf the last three years will hold down the corner opposite Neolms , at least starting out in fall camp and will be backed up by Eric Dixon a promising 5' 11" 185 lb. true Soph. who came to UK with high accolades .
In coming freshman Cody Quinn of Middletown , Ohio and Jonathan Reed of Indianapolis could and should make a significant contribution to the cornerback position as well as two of the Blaylock's from Georgia ( Shawn Blaylock is out due to season ending knee surgery to be performed on August 7th ) Zack Blaylock from Marietta , Georgia could puch for playing time at either corner or safety position . Quinn and Reed both bring outstanding speed to the DB position but they must go thru the wars and process of physical maturation for a year or two before they will be more consistent .
Final analysis in my astute opinion is that there is some talent , athleticism , and speed in this group especially in the freshman and sophomore class but there is nothing like the experience of going thru trial and error for this position . The elder statesmen Neolms & Rice have game experience but it's severely tainted with poor performances on several occasions which if it continues could put some of those talented freshman and sophomores on the field in those 2nd , 3rd , and long down situations .
What could be an asset to this year's defensive backfield that hasn't been there many times in the past is a quality pass rush from the Wildcat DL and added pressure from those hybrid linebackers that can make defensive coordinator Rick Minters blitz packages very challenging on the passing game at times .
With the situation this coaching staff is presently in I can see them throwing the kitchen sink and anything else they can get their hands on especially early in the season to try and turn a negative into a positive and if nothing else try and produce some early game momentum to ride thru the game . Look for this defense and it's coordinator to have a river boat gambler's mentality early because they have nothing to lose .............. well , except their jobs .
Next week Part 3 - Linebackers & Special Teams