I want to start by saying that I have an unbelievable amount of respect for Joker Phillips. Joker coached at Cincinnati when my brother was a free safety at Ballard in 1998. He was the coach on the staff responsible for recruiting my brother and he is honestly one of the most genuine people I've met. He landed my brother and still kept in contact with him and my mom even after he moved on to Minnesota. Coaches are known to be somewhat sleazy but Joker isn't one of those guys. I can't actually root for UK but I hope that Joker finds success in some way down there or at another school.
With that being said, Joker and his staff have a lot of work to do down in Lexington. Morgan Newton has pretty much been a bust and it has turned the offense into a shell of what it was when Mike Hartline and Randall Cobb were pulling off upsets a few years ago. Kentucky has never had a great football program, but a winning record and a bowl trip had been enough to make Rich Brooks a very popular guy there. Joker seemed to have lost fan support from the day he was handed the keys to big office but the team's sometimes "boring" play has kept the fans away at an alarming rate. It's hard to quantify how well a coach is doing even if you look at win and losses and the comparisons of these two coaches says why. Charlie Strong only has three more wins than Joker but Joker is on the hot seat while Strong received a new contract. Joker needs something to go his way or he might be out of a job.
There is no one that is more passionate about Kentucky football than Joker Phillips. The fact that he has had to resort to practically beg for fans to come out and support the team is pretty sad to see. Joker did some really good things as the offensive coordinator but he has really struggled as the head coach. Quotes from a player saying that guys were sleeping in meetings popped up last year and led to questions about the coaching staff. A few off field issues and players being lost to academic issues have led many to feel that Joker doesn't have control of his team. The lack of wins last year haven't helped him much and he might need a big upset to get a spark going.
Randy Sanders brought a big time pedigree with him to UK after a pretty successful stint as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. Sanders has called the plays and coached the quarterbacks for UK since Joker moved up to the head coaching spot. Sanders did well to help Andre Woodson become a top notch SEC quarterback and really got Mike Hartline to play above his talent level, but Morgan Newton has struggled under his tutelage. Sanders has seemed to favor the passing game and might need to really try to pound the ball with an inexperienced Max Smith taking over for Newton. The receiving core has an influx of new talent this year and it will be interesting to see how Sanders chooses to attack the Louisville defense.
Rick Minter took over the defense last year and did a good job utilizing his most talented players. MInter is tasked with finding replacements for all four of his linebackers and two defensive backs this season. Minter has a couple of guys that played last year but at least four of the players that will man starting spots this year will be seeing their first extended playing time. Minter's defense resembles Louisville's 3-3-5 defense. It puts a linebacker on the line of scrimmage with the purpose of either blitzing or dropping into a short zone coverage. The extra defensive back is a hybrid safety/linebacker that pretty much plays all over the field. They might be in coverage on one play and blitzing the next. The one thing that is very confusing to me is the lack of pressure Kentucky gets from this defense. Louisville has caused some serious havoc with what is essentially the same defense. Minter needs to find ways to get his defense to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. If the defensive play calling stays conservative, Teddy will be able to pick the defense apart all day.
Head coaches can only do so much. They rely on their staff to call plays and recruit. However, it's up to the head coach to hire guys that can do both of those things well. That's where I think Joker's failure has been. His staff is filled with guys that been around for years and have tons of experience, but they don't do anything to push the envelope. Would 18-year old you really be able to relate to any of those guys on that staff? Rick Minter had a mullet when he came to offer my brother a scholarship in 1998. Greg Nord couldn't even recruit Louisville when he coached here. Joker needs to bring some young, energetic, and charismatic guys onto his staff. Tee Martin killed it on the recruiting trail in his short stint there and other young guys could also do well too.
Charlie Strong has done a great job great job of rebuilding fan support after he took over for a coach that struggled to win games. Strong has coached with some of the best coaches of our generation and he has implemented the things that he has learned here at Louisville. Strong hit the recruiting trail hard and he and his coaching staff have loaded the team with young talent. This will be the first year Strong will be favored to win almost all of his games and we will finally be able to see how he handles a different level of pressure. Strong has done a lot to bring fans back to the stadium. I think this year he needs to take the team to the next level.
Vance Bedford embodies the new direction of this football program like no one else. His passion seeps through in every interview and it is contagious. Bedford's defense is an aggressive and exciting blend of blitzes and big plays. Last years defense made nearly 100 plays behind the line of scrimmage and really stifled opposing offenses. Max Smith didn't handle defensive pressure well in his limited time last year so I expect Bedford to up the already insane amount of blitzes he calls on Sunday. One thing that stuck with me after the FIU game last year was the lack of adaptability Bedford showed. T.Y. Hilton scored three touchdowns by taking the lid off the defense. After a while I expected Bedford to have Adrian Bushell or Andrew Johnson mirror Hilton. Instead Hilton ran past Dexter Heyman, Shenard Holton, and Hakeem Smith to score two easy touchdowns. The pass defense was very suspect at times last year and guys were getting beat deep a lot more than one would like. Bedford might need to diversify his play calling and packages when things don't go as planned or some of the more talented players we face this year could have big games.
Shawn Watson is being asked to do what seems to be a very easy job. Score points with an offense full of talent. It sounds easy enough, but the offense struggled mightily last season and didn't produce many big plays. Watson took over as the offensive coordinator a quarter of the way through the season and the offense started to show signs of improvement down the back stretch of the schedule. Watson should have more success this year with a full offseason to prepare and only a few starters to replace. The complaint that I think most Cardinal fans have had since Bobby Petrino left is that the play calling has been too conservative. With DeVante Parker and Charles Gaines lining up out wide for his offense Watson needs to get the ball down the field more this season. Watson has all the talent he needs to improve the offense. This Sunday I expect to see Watson use all of that talent to attack an inexperienced Kentucky defense.
Strong has done a great job building and keeping a great staff of young coaches. They all recruit very well and really get after guys on the practice field. Clint Hurtt is known as one of the top recruiters in the nation and Bedford has brought an exciting defense that we haven't seen in years. The staff follows the lead of coach Strong and fans have really taken a liking to these guys. There are still plenty of room for improvement, but having the talent to help them improve makes their jobs much easier.