By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not hard for Kentucky coach Joker Phillips to note what he likes best about the five true freshmen defensive backs the Wildcats have been forced to play this season because of injuries in the secondary.
“They are doing a really good job competing. They are showing up every day and competing really hard,” said Phillips as UK (1-7) prepares to play at Missouri (3-4) Saturday.
Cornerback Cody Quinn and Zack Blaylock both played 72 plays against Georgia. Cornerback Fred Tiller logged 60 plays. Safety Daron Blaylock and cornerback J.D. Harmon also played.
“With young guys, sometimes you worry about conditioning and being able to hold up against a team as physical as Georgia,” Phillips said. “But they all came up and made tackles.”
Tiller had eight tackles against Georgia, Zack Blaylock seven and Quinn four.
“They delivered the blows. That is the thing I am most proud of,” Phillips said. “Those guys will compete. Don’t back down from anything.
“You don’t see those guys change when they get beat and they will get beat. They’re young kids that still try to find their way, but their demeanor doesn’t change when they give up a play. Cody Quinn gave up a big pass and then a touchdown on the slant, and when he came off, I grabbed him and just wanted to look him in his eyes and see what I saw, and I saw still a confident guy but really didn’t believe that the guy had beat him, had signaled touchdown.
“He was one of those guys you feel good about that you have to play that way if you’re playing corner. It’s not every position. But you have to play that way when you’re playing corner and the thing I’m most proud about is those guys, their demeanor just never changes. And Harmon is the same way, both Blaylocks are the same way. All five of those guys playing in the secondary, it’s unusual for you to have five freshmen that have the confidence level that those guys have.”
Phillips also likes the way the freshmen seldom miss tackles.
“That’s the thing we want to improve being a better tackling team. And you saw Fred Tiller get cut two times on a screen pass, jumps over the cut block, falls down, misses the tackle but then makes it for a 2‑yard gain. So those guys, Cody Quinn does not miss a lot of tackles,” Phillips said. “A lot has to do with being better athletes starting to be better understand how to run their feet. Come from good programs. Cody Quinn is one of our strongest guys in this freshman class. So we’re starting to get guys that are physically and athletic enough to run through and understand balance. That’s what you have to have when you’re tackling, you have to be balanced when you come up to make a tackle.”
Kentucky has allowed almost 800 yards passing the last two games, but will apparently not have to face Missouri quarterback James Franklin. He’s listed as doubtful again with a knee injury as the Tigers will go with backup Corbin Berstresser at quarterback.
The Wildcats will again start freshman Jalen Whitlow at quarterback, but freshman Patrick Towles apparently will play. He played briefly against Mississippi State — and led one touchdown drive — before injuring his ankle and missing the last two games.
“I thought he did a good job this week of moving around better than I ever would’ve thought. He has continued to tell us how fast of a healer he is, and he is. He looked good today — all week, really, moving around. Especially once he took the air cast off,” Phillips said Thursday.