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By LARRY VAUGHT
He had a career-high 10 tackles and 1.5 quarterback sacks against Western Kentucky Saturday and has had a sack, tackle for loss, fumble recovery or pass breakup in seven of his last eight games, but senior defensive end Collins Ukwu knows Kentucky is at a crossroads going into the Southeastern Conference opener at No. 14 Florida this week.
Kentucky is 1-2 after the overtime loss to Western — the Hilltoppers’ first win over a SEC school. Ukwu, a team captain with 82 career tackles, offered these insights into what lies ahead for the Cats.
Question: Did you ever imagine teams could be so successful running the ball on Kentucky this year?
Ukwu: “Of course not. The guys that we have coming in and has hard as we worked this offseason, I didn’t think it would happen like this. We still have more games to play. I think we are going to get better. We just have to believe and start pushing.”
Question: Does the team rally around coach Joker Phillips at this point knowing he’s under fire from fans?
Ukwu: “Me as a senior, us seniors kind of rally around each other. Just kind of bring the young guys into it. You don’t want the young guys losing belief in what our mission is and what our goal is. Those were non-conference games. This is really like a clean slate (starting SEC play) for us. It’s like basically a new game, new schedule, 0-0. These are the games that truly matter.”
Question: What do you have to do against Florida early considering the Gators have outscored UK 94-3 in the first quarter of the last four games?
Ukwu: “You just have to keep watching film. They have good players like always. We have to see what the game plan is and what coach (Rick) Minter wants us to do and we just have to execute it.”
Question: What has been the biggest reason for not stopping the run better?
Ukwu: “We just have to do the little things a lot better. Coach (David) Turner during meetings Sunday just pointed it out. There were sometimes we just didn’t do little normal things that we usually do. We didn’t do it all the time. That’s the difference between a good team and a great team. A good defense and a great defense. You have to do those things all the time and be consistent all the time.”
Question: Is it more mental or physical?
Ukwu: “It is a little bit of both actually. Things that happen in a course of the game and you can get sidetracked by different things. It is something you don’t want to look at. You want to be focused on every play.”
Question: How do you deal with the negativity around the program now?
Ukwu: “For the younger guys, I keep telling them this is going to happen. It’s football. Fans … once we start winning, they are going to be back on the bandwagon. Obviously they are not on it just from the losses we have had. It’s something that we don’t worry about. Coach Phillips addressed it as well. We have each other and that’s basically it. We are just going to keep playing and keep pushing and try to get this win.”
Question: What is the team morale right now?
Ukwu: “Just keep working. We have a lot of games left. We just have to keep playing and believing.”