Kentucky's struggles in football are well-documented. They include just two SEC championships, only 13 bowl games in the past 60 years and losing streaks of 25 games to Tennessee, 23 to Florida and 10 to South Carolina.
But lost in those numbers is that the Wildcats made strides under former coach Rich Brooks with a 30-22 record during the past four seasons and four straight bowl games. New coach Joker Phillips hopes to build on that momentum.
Phillips, who is from Franklin, Ky., and played for the Wildcats, got his start in coaching at Kentucky as a graduate assistant in 1988 before moving up to assistant recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach in the next few years. He left for stops in Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina from 1997 to 2002 before returning to his alma mater in 2003. He became offensive coordinator in 2005, then was named head coach-in-waiting in 2008 and head coach in 2010 when Brooks retired.
So Phillips knows the program inside-out and what it will take to keep it moving forward. It's all about recruiting, and the former recruiting coordinator has put together a staff that he believes can go out and get the job done. He's passionate about his program and is selling a mantra called "Operation Win" to recruits, fans and anyone else willing to listen.
Operation Win is simple: Phillips wants his players to win in the classroom, in the community and on the gridiron.
"In getting to know the coaches, they told us about Operation Win," said Kentucky commit Ashely Lowrey, a three-star athlete. "It's about who they are and how things are going to be. Things are changing. It's not all basketball in Kentucky. The football team is on the rise. Everyone is into Coach Phillips and believes that he will win and take Kentucky football to the top."
Whom the Wildcats have
So far, so good, especially when it comes to recruiting and Operation Win. Phillips has secured 17 commitments from nine different states.
The Wildcats' top recruit is ESPNU 150 prospect and four-star athlete Jon Davis. He does it all for Louisville (Ky.) Eastern and could play a number of positions in college -- running back, tight end, safety or linebacker. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Davis can really move, is powerful and has soft hands. He was Kentucky's first commitment back in December 2009.
Two other athletes headed to Kentucky are Lowery and Riyahd Jones. Lowery is a two-way star from Cleveland (Ga.) White County. He's 6-1 and 169 pounds, and although he could play running back, he is likely better-suited for safety. He just needs to get bigger and stronger. Jones is a potential wide receiver or defensive back prospect from Columbus (Ga.) Carver who caught 27 passes for 405 yards and five scores last season. He camped at Kentucky this summer and won the coaches over after performing well at cornerback. In fact, don't be surprised if Jones blows up this fall in the recruiting circles and earns more scholarship offers.
"We are ready to win there at Kentucky," Jones said. "Coach Phillips has been around there a while as an assistant and offensive coordinator, so he knows what it takes to win there. He will do a great job, and it's going to be an exciting time."
He may be a tad small, but Daylen Hall from Louisville (Ky.) St. Xavier is a talented cornerback and among the best in Kentucky. He's just 5-8, 170 pounds, but he's fast and physical.
The Wildcats went north to land a pair of three-star players from East Saint Louis (Ill.) High School. Safety Glen Faulkner is 6-1, 190 pounds, and he shows excellent range and instincts. He is a big-play guy in the secondary. Last season, he recorded 60 tackles, seven interceptions (two returned for scores) and one sack. Defensive tackle Clint Tucker, who's 6-1, 307 pounds, should give the Wildcats a good inside presence. He shows quickness for his size, is strong and moves well.
Kentucky raided Tennessee for defensive end Christian Coleman from Milan (Tenn.) High School. The 6-3, 240-pounder is quick, has a good motor and shows pretty good speed off the edge.
Kentucky has one linebacker commit in Blake Terry from Denton (Texas) Guyer. Terry, who's 6 feet, 235 pounds, does not shy away from contract and plays the run very well. Last year he recorded 135 tackles.
OT Darrian Miller is Kentucky's only offensive line commit so far. A highly regarded three-star recruit from Lexington (Ky.) Bryan Station, Miller, 6-5 and 265 pounds, is athletic, quick and has a lot of upside. He just needs time to get bigger, stronger and learn the game.
QB Theltus Cobbins from New Orleans McDonogh is just 6-1 and 185 pounds, but he has above-average physical attributes. Cobbins possesses a good arm and unreal quickness and speed in the pocket. He has a lot to learn, but he brings a lot of talent to this position for Phillips and his Kentucky offense. Last season he threw for 2,000 yards and 17 scores and rushed for 700 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Wildcats have three wide receiver commitments so far in Darien Thomas, Nile Daniel and Antonio Cannon. Thomas, from Theodore (Ala.) High School is physical and will go over the middle and catch the ball in traffic. The 6-2, 192-pounder has flown under the radar, but he's a big play just waiting to happen. Last year he caught 35 passes for 802 yards and 12 touchdowns. That's almost 23 yards per reception. Is that any good?
Cannon, from Central (S.C.) Daniel, is another receiver with good size (6-2, 175) and should help in the red zone. Cannon is terrific in the air, has excellent body control and concentration and just has a knack for making something happen. Last year, he caught 47 passes for 734 yards and three touchdowns.
With Cannon and Thomas outside, Daniel, from Griffin (Ga.) High School, will be an inside receiver. Daniel, who is 6 feet, 175 pounds, is quick and dangerous with the ball in his hands.
"I can't wait to get to Kentucky," Daniel said. "They want me to play in the slot. I want to help build the tradition there with Coach Phillips."
The Wildcats will also re-sign Justin Bean, a receiver who was part of their 2009 class. He is now at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi.
Josh Forrest is one of two tight end commitments. Forrest, from Paducah (Ky.) High School, is kind of a tweener for the position at 6-3 and 205 pounds. He's long but will have to fill out his frame and grow into a SEC tight end. Last year he caught 23 passes for 407 yards and seven touchdowns. Terrell Mitchell signed with the Wildcats last season but failed to qualify. He is currently at Georgia Military School and will re-sign with Kentucky.
Whom the Wildcats still want
With 17 commitments, Kentucky still has some work to do and spots to fill. Running backs Julius Pendergrass (Chester, S.C./Chester), Marcus Caffey (Atlanta, Ga./Grady) and Alonzo Harris (Gadsden, Ala./Gadsden) are three to watch.
With only one offensive line commit so far, this could be a busy position for the Cats. Ray Ball (Westerville, Ohio/South), Dwayne Montgomery (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Dillard), Cody Robinson (McMinnville, Tenn./Warren County), Pat Flavin (Lisle, Ill./Benet Academy), Nick Martin (Indianapolis/Bishop Chatard), Kristofer Curtis (Fayetteville, Ga./Fayette County) and Zach West (Lexington, Ky./Lexington Christian Academy) all have offers from Kentucky, and a few from this list could end up in Lexington.
On defense, keep a close eye on defensive ends Mike Rose (Simpsonville, S.C./Hillcrest), Dwight Jackson (Miami/Central) and Preston Smith (Stone Mountain, Ga./Stephenson), defensive tackles Chris Mayes (Griffin, Ga./Spalding) and Jakari Kinnie (Gadsden, Ala./Gadsden), linebackers Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky./Boyle County), Daerius Washington (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Dillard), Steven Daniels (Cincinnati/St. Xavier), Antonio Poole (Cincinnati/Winton Woods) and Cedrick Cooper (Lithonia, Ga./Lithonia) and cornerbacks Ronnie Harris (Atlanta/Westlake) and Bruce Dukes (Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek).
This is a big season for Kentucky football, and Phillips has to keep the program's momentum going in a positive direction. He's selling his staff, his players, the recruits and the Wildcats faithful on his belief that the team will win. A good year in 2010 would carry over off the field. They would close strong with this class, and their energy and momentum would give the Wildcats a huge boost for future recruiting classes.
Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.