Joker Phillips looks to replace departed talent

By Ethan Levine

It has been more than three months since the UK football team shocked the Bluegrass and defeated the Tennessee Volunteers for the first time in a quarter century. Since then, the Cats have had to bid farewell to a number of starters from a year ago, including three offensive linemen and the team’s top two tacklers. But the cupboard is not empty for UK head coach Joker Phillips, who had to use a number of talented but undeveloped underclassmen throughout a difficult 2011 schedule.

“The thing that makes you really excited is seeing those young guys out there flying around,” Phillips said. “When you look out there, there was a ton of young true freshmen making plays on both sides of the football.”

With those same underclassmen returning for a new year, bringing not only their talents but a season’s worth of experience with them, the development process will continue — beginning with spring practice this month.

“It’s kind of hard when you first come in and you haven’t played any games and no one wants to listen to that guy, he hasn’t played,” rising-sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith said. “But I played those couple games and I’m ready to speak up and be loud and be a captain of this team.”

Smith first arrived in Lexington last spring as a greyshirt freshman to begin spring practice. When starting quarterback Morgan Newton went down with an injury midway through the season, Smith was called upon to take over the starting job. In just three starts and eight appearances last season, Smith finished the season the team’s leader in completions, completion percentage and passing yards and passer rating, earning a selection to the SEC All-Freshman team.

“It’s not really anything, but it was a nice honor,” Smith said. “But it’s time to step it up. It’s all about being first team All-SEC and being an All-SEC player, that’s what it’s all about.”

Smith’s coaches hope he can reach those lofty goals as well in commanding the Cats’ offense. Smith said that in the offseason and in spring practice he has been focusing on his footwork and composure in the pocket.

“That’s my game, I’m a pocket passer,” Smith said.

Smith should get some help on offense this spring with some of the young talent UK is developing around him, including running back Josh Clemons and wide receivers Darryl Collins and Demarco Robinson.

Clemons earned the starting running back position early in 2011, experienced highs and lows before suffering a season-ending knee injury at South Carolina on October 8. Clemons racked up 279 yards and two touchdowns in six games, including an 87-yard touchdown scamper against Central Michigan in a breakout win for Clemons and the Cats.

Clemons sits third on the depth chart behind fellow backs CoShik Williams and Raymond Sanders, but it doesn’t seem to be bothering the soon-to-be sophomore.

“I’m just trying to learn so I can help my teammates,” Clemons said. “We’re all in this together.”

Between the three of them, Williams, Clemons and Sanders combined for 920 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns last season.

Robinson had a quiet freshman year, catching just five balls for 17 yards and seeing most of his action on end-around handoffs. But with the return of freshman Darryl Collins, who took a medical redshirt in 2011 after sustaining a knee injury in August, and the leadership of senior La’Rod King, both Robinson and Collins could play larger roles in the offense in 2012.