Phillips sees perception of Kentucky changing

Six years ago, a voice injected some much-needed juice into Kentucky’s program.

Former tight end Jacob Tamme delivered a sermon that hit straight to the core of those inside Kentucky’s program when he announced to the team that SEC wasn’t coming down to the Wildcats’ level.

They were going to have to move up to the elite level.

Kentucky has now played in five straight bowl games and has won three of them. Second-year coach Joker Phillips is looking to take the Wildcats to their sixth straight bowl game -- something Kentucky football has never done.

For a school known more for hoops than pigskin, that’s an accomplishment. But it’s not enough for Phillips.

Phillips said he and his players are focused on something else, something more exciting. Phillips doesn’t just want to reach bowl games, he wants to compete for SEC titles.

“We’re happy with bowls games, but we want to see how long we can stay in the [SEC] race,” Phillips said at the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., last week.

Kentucky appeared primed to be in the thick of the SEC East race in 2007 before bowing out during the second half of the season. The next three seasons saw the Wildcats hovering around six and seven wins.

However, Phillips sees a change in the way his program is perceived. The new TV deal has brought in more viewers and they’ve increased their level of competition on the field, Phillips said.

“The perception is changing,” he said.

Since 2006, the Wildcats have beaten Georgia twice, a No. 1-ranked LSU team, a 10th-ranked South Carolina team, and Florida State in a bowl game.

“We’ve beaten some of the traditional powers in this league,” Phillips said. “The thing we have to try to do is do it on a consistent basis.”

The 2011 season brings up a handful of questions for the Wildcats. For starters, they lost playmakers on offense, including do-everything weapon Randall Cobb and quarterback Mike Hartline, who was second in the league in passing last fall. The defense is also going through changes with new defensive coordinator Rick Minter installing more of a multiple scheme.

Publicly, Phillips hasn’t expressed any concern with those issues. He looks at 11 of the top 13 tacklers on defense coming back, four returning starters to the offensive line and much improved progress by the offense from the fall to the spring.

Replacing Cobb, who lined up as a wide receiver, wildcat quarterback, kick returner, punt returner and the holder, won’t be easy, but Phillips thinks his job(s) will be taken care of by committee, especially after signing five receivers in the 2011 class.

“We have to find out who our next up and coming star is,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of potential on our football team and we have a lot of potential guys in our recruiting class.”

Getting the ball to those guys might be the most comforting thought. Frustrated by two up-and-down seasons, Morgan Newton is finally the guy. He has no real competition for his spot and Phillips said he saw a more mature and comfortable Newton under center this spring.

He improved so much this spring that Phillips believes he’s ahead of where Hartline and Andre Woodson were his age -- which is saying a lot.

“We’ve been able to develop quarterbacks and we feel Morgan Newton is one of those guys who we feel will be a big-time quarterback in time at Kentucky,” Phillips said.