Phillips does have a new code phrase for Wildcat football. "Operation Win" he calls it. Kentucky, not nearly as tradition-rich on the gridiron as the hardwood, has been winning in football recently. The Wildcats under Brooks and staff have been to four consecutive bowl games, winning three of them. The last four years there have been two eight-win seasons and two seven-win seasons.
Phillips hopes to build on that and do even better.
"Operation Win is in full effect," said Phillips, who played wide receiver at UK from 1981-84. "There's no question about that. Our coaches did a great job of selling the 2010 class, and we finished recruiting strong. Our coaches also did a great job of selling our present players, which was important. We had a really good off-season winter conditioning. We had a real positive spring. A lot of big competitions at different positions. It's in full effect."
Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com, affiliated with Scout.com, takes an indepth look at the Wildcats of 2010. Here are some excerpts from his analysis.
There are some terrific pieces to work around and to carry the team to another bowl. The special teams might be the best in the SEC if a steady field goal kicker can be found, RB Derrick Locke and WR Randall Cobb lead a talented group of skill players, the linebacking corps should somewhat quietly be excellent, and DeQuin Evans is a terrific defensive end who should be among the best pass rushing ends in the SEC. However, there are some ten-mile wide holes that won't quickly be filled and should be just enough of a problem to keep the Cats from being a player in the SEC race.
The quarterback situation needs to be figured out and figured out fast, four starters need to be replaced on a terrific offensive line that was second in the SEC in pass protection, and several of the top playmakers on defense, including linebackers Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell, are gone from a decent D that had a strong second half of the year.
Phillips has some work to do, but Brooks put the foundation in place and now it's time to build on it. UK football won't be special overnight, but for now, yeah, another winning season and a bowl game would be just fine.
What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. The offensive line might need help with a former defensive lineman, Chandler Burden, likely to get the call at left tackle and with three other new starters in the mix, but the real issue all season is going to be at quarterback. Mike Hartline hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and he struggled before suffering a season ending knee injury. However, he's tough, experienced, and is the type of leader who can help the team along as it goes through a transitional period.
What to watch for on defense: Doing more to get into the backfield. The Wildcats might not have a ton of talent on D, but everyone can move. This is an athletic bunch that does a great job of getting around the ball, and now the new coaching staff will try to speed things up a bit to be more disruptive. Defensive coordinator Steve Brown is still around, and he has to get creative to generate more pressure take the pressure off the rest of the team. UK got by without stopping the run or hitting the quarterback, but it'll be playing with fire if it tries to do that again.
The team will be far better if...the passing game is efficient. The line has to show it can pass protect like last year's solid wall, and if there's time, the quarterbacks have to start getting the ball down the field and making something happen. The offense had to get creative last year with the way it ran the ball, and now one of the nation's least efficient passing games has to balance things out. UK was 114th in the nation in passing yards and 109th in efficiency. With good running backs to take the heat off and a potentially great receiving corps, there's no excuse to be so bad again.
The schedule: If the Cats can stay healthy and can pull off an upset or two, they should come up with a sneaky-good season thanks to a not-that-bad schedule. Missing Alabama and LSU from the West is break number one, and there's a week off late in the year before going to Tennessee. The Florida game is probably a loss anyway, so that might as well be on the road. However, the Gators will have much, much bigger fish to fry with Alabama and LSU coming up after hosing UK, so their minds might be elsewhere. A trip to Ole Miss after going to Gainesville will be tough, but there's only one other road game, at Mississippi State, from October 9th to the season-ender in Knoxville. Outside of the opener at Louisville, the non-conference schedule is made up of light scrimmages.
Best offensive player: Junior WR Randall Cobb. It could be argued that Cobb was the most valuable player in the SEC last season (and possibly the last two years). Okay, so that Tebow guy did a lot for Florida, but no single player ended up doing more for his team or was more of a difference maker between a good season and a great one. Cobb has done everything in two years as the team's best wide receiver, one of its most dangerous runners, a good Wildcat quarterback, and an elite kick and punt returner.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Danny Travathan. End DeQuin Evans might be the most disruptive player, and he's the one who can actually get to the quarterback, but Travathan is the leader of the back seven and the star on the weakside who'll clean everything up. He came up with a very steady season as one of the few UK defenders who regularly came up with plays against the run, but he didn't get into the backfield and he didn't do much against the pass. Both things must change.
Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Mike Hartline. If It's Ryan Mossakowski under center full time, this is a true rebuilding year and it's a step back to potentially take a giant leap forward. If it's Morgan Newton, it's combining the experience of last year with a world of upside. If it's Hartline, the coaching staff is looking to win now and try to overcome the other issues with a veteran leader, but he has to be better. He has to keep the chains moving, can't throw picks, and has to get points on the board or one of the younger options will quickly take over the gig.
The season will be a success if...UK wins eight games. 1977 was the last time the Wildcats won more than eight games (going 10-1), and while this team is hardly good enough to threaten for double-digit wins, just getting back to eight victories for the first time in three years would be a big step forward for a program that hasn't been able to break through. Winning nine would be truly special, but to do that there can't be any slips, there would have to be an upset or two, and everyone of note would have to stay healthy.