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By LARRY VAUGHT
HOOVER, Ala. — Joker Phillips is certain beating Tennessee to end last season is going to be a huge confidence boost for his team this year, and not because the Cats broke their historic losing streak with receiver Matt Roark forced into playing quarterback.
“There’s a lot of young kids making plays for us late in the season, especially the last four games,” said Phillips during the Southeastern Conference Media Days Wednesday. “You look out there, the last game, probably four or five true freshmen playing for us on defense. (Linebacker) Bud Dupree is a guy that someday will be at this event here, be a household name in the state of Kentucky.
“So I think it was huge in our players gaining confidence. I think it was huge in that those guys were able to make plays. The guys that were redshirted that were in the same class as them, I think it gave them confidence that they want to experience some of the same things that some of their classmates did. We have 26 of our top 44 players that are freshmen and sophomores. That may seem like disaster to some but when we started this bowl streak, it was 24, not counting the freshmen coming in. We feel like we have more quality players in our program now, especially in our young groups.”
Senior center Matt Smith remembers how hard it was to hide the news from his own family last season that Roark was going to take over at quarterback that game because of injuries to Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton.
“When we first heard the news about Matt, we all got a kick out of it. Then we realized the coaches were serious,” Smith said. “We just had to kind of dumb the offense down to where he could do some things.
“We had a lot of young guys out there making plays and special teams, which had haunted us, were really good. Our defense played exceptionally well. The fact we made adjustments on offense was promising and showed we can adjust on the fly. It was a great experience and turned out great for us.
“I grew up a Kentucky fan and I had never seen Kentucky beat Tennessee. I know my parents and family friends talked about how much it meant to them to beat them, but it was something you don’t actually realize until it happens or how much it meant to state and program. For me, it was huge growing up a Kentucky fan to be on the team that finally beat Tennessee again.
“That also let us start fresh this season and now we can go after Florida and try to knock that monster off our back. All you can do is get those monsters one at a time. We have nothing to lose. I remember when we beat South Carolina (in 2010) when they were a top five team. It felt awesome. We want to experience that again.”
Phillips said to do that, his players must remember what they did to beat Tennessee and carry that over to the season-opening game at Louisville.
“We ran the football, protected the football, created turnovers, didn’t give up big plays. We gave up two big plays, one for a touchdown, one we created a turnover right afterwards. We played great special teams, field position. We stopped the run,” Phillips said.
“I think that gives us an opportunity to grow as a program. Now we understand what it takes to win, okay? You don’t always have to put up 500, 600 yards offensively, okay? You don’t always have to score 35 points, okay? You have to do all the little things that’s needed. You can’t make foolish mistakes. We didn’t make any foolish mistakes in that game. I think all those things gives us an opportunity to sell what we consider our plan to win at Kentucky.”