If Joker Phillips is on the proverbial "hot seat" entering the 2012 season, one would be hard pressed to detect any signs of that status from the man in question.
Speaking to the media Monday at his first weekly press luncheon of the year, the Kentucky coach displayed little indication that his Wildcats are heavy underdogs going into Sunday's game at Louisville.
That is, until he had a chance to have a little fun with it.
Asked if he was going to use some of Lou Holtz's old motivational tools this week -- namely, hyping the opponent and giving his team little chance to win the game -- Phillips seized the opportunity.
"Hey, we aren't as good as (Louisville). You guys write it every day. We're not. Right? Is that what Lou would say?" Phillips quipped.
Then, attempting his best vocal impersonation of his former boss at South Carolina, Phillips added; "I don't know how we're going to beat these guys. I really don't, Joker. It's gonna be tough. They've got a fullback that looks just like this. I don't know how we're going to stop them. I really don't."
On a more serious note, Phillips embraced the underdog status and called the matchup a "great opportunity," adding that it's just as important for the Cards.
"I guarantee they're saying the same thing up the road also," he said. "Everybody's first game is important... to set the tempo and set the tone for the season."
So how could a coach coming off a 5-7 season with an offense that ranked 117th out of 120 Division I programs in scoring offense a year ago be so loose entering perhaps the most important game of his UK career to date?
For starters, Phillips says his Cats are coming out of fall camp "as healthy as we've ever been around here." The team struggled after having four of its five projected starting offensive linemen banged up in last year's August practice sessions and never recovered.
Phillips also feels much better about the offense's leader, sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, heading into the new season.
"He's been real efficient in how consistent he is and throwing strikes, which is putting the ball in armpits and at eye level for receivers," Phillips said. "I like the way he operates. Again, he's not a guy who's going to beat you with his legs. We all know that. But he's a guy who can beat you with his arm and beat you with his mind.
"... You'll see a more confident guy, also. Obviously last year, as a (grayshirt) freshman, everything was new to him. Especially, having seen our defense, there's nothing that can confuse him that he hasn't seen."
Containing Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will also be a big key for UK defensively. He came off the bench to go 10 of 18 for 106 yards and two touchdown passes in last year's 24-17 win by the Cards at Commonwealth Stadium.
"He's a guy who played really well for them in the second half against us. Made some huge throws," Phillips said. "... He's been a really good quarterback for them. One of the top quarterbacks not just in their league, but in the country."
* The Cats have only two significant injuries going into the Louisville game. Sophomore running back Josh Clemons will be out due to the minor procedure he recently had to clean loose cartilage from his surgically-repaired knee. He is expected to return to practice soon if he doesn't experience any setbacks. Junior tight end Jordan Aumiller is battling a case of plantar fasciitis (inflamation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot).
* With injury to Clemons, senior Coshik Williams and junior Raymond Sanders enter game week bracketed as the Cats' expected starter at tailback. At tight end, junior Tyler Robinson and sophomore Ronnie Shields are bracketed as the projected starter.
* Despite rave reviews during fall camp on almost a daily basis, sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson is not listed as a starter for the opener. Phillips noted that had more to do with the encouraging performance of other receivers like veterans E.J. Fields and Aaron Boyd than it did with a setback for Robinson. "I feel better about our depth at some of the play-making positions," Phillips said.
* Two "true" freshmen battled their way onto the two-deep depth chart at cornerback -- Fred Tiller and J.D. Harmon -- and another at safety in the form of Daron Blaylock. The corners are listed behind starters Cartier Rice and Martavius Neloms, respectively. Blaylock backs up Ashely Lowery.
* Only one newcomer shows up on the offensive two-deep. Jordan Swindle is listed as Darrian Miller's backup at left tackle.
* Another "true" freshman is expected to start at punter, Landon Foster. Phillips said he has no concerns about entrusting that important duty to a newcomer. "He's a different breed."
Phillips confident as game week arrives
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