Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown thinks there have been “two different messages” for UK players this week preparing for Saturday night’s final game here against Tennessee.
“No. 1, you’ve got a group of seniors that I think that while the results may not look like it, they’ve done a good job from a work ethic standpoint. Guys like Kevin Mitchell, guys like Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson, there are a couple other of those guys, who have done a good job of showing the young guys how to work and the mentality to have. So I think you approach it from one way, like, ‘Hey, this is their last game. This is their last chance to perform at this type of level at the University of Kentucky,’” said Brown.
“And the other aspect of it for the young guys, is this is going to lead us into the off-season, so we can go into the offseason on a positive.”
Brown has also had to game plan for Tennessee without knowing exactly whether starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow (shoulder, neck) will play, play on a limited basis or not play at all. Even if he does play, he could be re-injured. That’s why Maxwell Smith, who took over for Smith in the loss at Georgia last week, could well be the starter against Tennessee.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been in this (position) before this year, so it won’t be that much of a difference for all the rest of the guys,” Brown said.
Brown says he knows UK made the “right decision” by not using freshman Reese Phillips’ redshirt year to play him in recent games.
“Selfishly as a coaching staff, we’d like to see, I’d like to see what he’d do in a game, but we’re going to have to wait a little bit more time to see that,” Brown said. “That’s not in our plans to play him, you know what I mean? But we’ve got two guys that are banged up, too. We’ll be creative.”
Kentucky had to play receiver Matt Roark at quarterback against Tennessee two years ago — and beat the Vols.
Brown says Kentucky has already “thrown about all we’ve got” at defenses in an attempt to move the ball this season.
“Here’s how I look at this: It’s an opportunity for us to go into the offseason with positivity. And I think we’ve shown some growth. The last two weeks have been a real struggle for us offensively. Some of that’s because we’ve been beat up, some people haven’t played,” Brown said. “And some of that is just some of the things we were doing to move the ball early in the year, people are catching on.
“But I think it’s a … we’re playing Tennessee, who is in a lot of ways in a similar spot to what we are: new program, really good recruiting class coming in, season hasn’t gone as well as they would’ve liked it to go either. But it’s a rivalry game. I think our kids will be excited. That’s our job, to get them excited to play. There’s a lot to play for.”
Brown said there’s no relief knowing the season ends Saturday and he can turn his attention to 2014.
“For our program to move forward, our young guys have to improve. And the only way, from a football aspect, fundamentally, is to actually get your hands on them and work with them. And in the offseason, we don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to do that. So it’s not a sigh of relief in that part,” Brown sid. “I have a very good grasp on what our problems are. I know what they are, I know where our weaknesses are.
“I know what we’ve got to do to improve from a schematic standpoint, from a personnel standpoint, and you can’t do a whole lot of that during the season. That’s fair to say. So I’m excited about getting it fixed in the offseason, but I’m also a little bit down that this will be the last week that we can actually go through a week of practice with some of these young guys.”
Brown again emphasized the offense UK is using and what he would like to run are not the same — yet.
“The reality of it is my job is to put our guys in the best situation possible to win the game. And I thought really, minus two games, I think we’ve done that,” Brown said. “We’ve put ourselves in the position to have an opportunity to compete. I don’t think we’ve won games on offense. I really don’t think – I’m a realist, I don’t think we’ve gone out and won games – but we’ve been able to hang around in games, with the exception of the Alabama and the Georgia games. We put our defense in some bad situations, and we did that in the Missouri game also, but I think we’ve been able to hang around.
“We’ve run the ball, at times, successfully. We’ve struggled to throw it all year. I don’t think that’s any grand secret. We’ve really struggled to throw it. We struggle to get open, we struggle to complete it, we struggle to protect it. Every aspect. But I think, like I said, we’ve given ourselves a chance. Moving forward, we’re going to keep evolving. But I think what we’ve done the last three years at (Texas) Tech, what we did at Troy, that style … will be successful, and we will get closer to that as some of our personnel changes.”