University of Kentucky football head coach Joker Phillips talked after practice Thursday for the final time until his Wildcats take on Arkansas on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET in Fayetteville, Ark.
Phillips updated the injury report after practice, saying that senior defensive backs Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton, along with sophomore safety Ashely Lowery will not play Saturday against Arkansas. Taking their place will be true freshman safeties Daron and Zack Blaylock. Backing up the Blaylock twins at safety will be sophomore Eric Dixon and true freshman walk-on Cody Lewis.
"It is time to go play," Phillips said. "We will go play without (Martavius) Neloms, Mikie Benton, Ashely Lowery. We will start two true freshmen in the back end at safety in the Blaylock twins (Daron and Zack) and then we will start Cody Quinn at one of the corners and a veteran guy out there at the other corner in Cartier Rice. Line up and go play. This is the No. 2 throwing team in this league and we are excited about playing."
Phillips, who said after practice that 23 of the 30 defensive players on the trip to Arkansas are freshmen and sophomores, is excited for the young guys and ready to see how they perform on the big stage. Phillips said UK has been in this situation before and won games.
"I have always taken the attitude of ‘next guy up,'" Phillips said. "We went into some big games with some guys that haven't gotten snaps at a lot of different positions and won some of them. We are going to go into this one the same way with the same attitude. We will line up with the next guy. I am excited for them and for the team, because those guys get behind those young guys. They know how hard those young guys have worked and how excited they are. Our guys rally together."
One of the main areas for concern with true freshmen leading the backline of the defense is making sure alignments and calls are correct. Phillips said the youngsters have practiced well this week, although, as expected, there have been mistakes. The head coach said adrenaline will have to kick in and the play calls will have to be made because it's too difficult to change that process.
"It's hard to do that," Phillips said about making adjustments to play calls and formations changes. "The linebackers communicate with the front seven and it's hard to put a cornerback in charge of the back end. The safety position should be able to see the whole formation and be the guy who is able to make all the calls in the back end. Again, we will simplify some things and give those guys a chance to get lined up and play. But we also have to do enough to take away some things that we think Arkansas will do in the passing game."
Phillips said he wouldn't be surprised to see Arkansas throw the ball more than normal due to UK's inexperience in the secondary, but he's hoping the UK defensive front can cause problems and disrupt the quarterback's timing.
"I think we will see more balls in the air, whether they are deep or intermediate passes, who knows," Phillips said. "What we have to do is do a good job of disrupting the timing of the quarterback up front. That is where we do have some older guys and we have to get off the ball and get good pressure in his face. We also have to get our hands up. I can't remember the last time we have knocked down a pass. Those things have to occur and when you start knocking down passes you create some turnovers with them. It has to be a team effort on defense, not just the back end, but the front line also."