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By LARRY VAUGHT
Senior defensive end Collins Ukwu, one of the team captains, said the incident so close to game time last week that resulted in three players — running back Raymond Sanders, receiver Bookie Cobbins and cornerback Marcus Caffey being cited for marijuana possession — being suspended did not impact the outcome of Saturday’s game with Western Kentucky that UK lost in overtime.
“The thing is, you just have to keep playing. I am sure every team in the nation has the same type of issues or what not,” Collins said. “It doesn’t bother us. We could definitely have needed them, but that’s something you don’t look at. Things are going to happen throughout a team and it was just a case of playing on.”
Starting offensive tackle Kevin Mitchell took the company line, too, on Monday.
“It always hurts our team (when players are suspended). I am not sure what happened. We didn’t really know anything about it until after the game,” Mitchell said. “We just have to move on. We could use the players, but you have to move on and play.”
True, but fans are going to have a hard time moving on. First, UK coach Joker Phillips said after the game that UK “matched” Western, not exactly what one expects from a Southeastern Conference coach playing a Sun Belt team. Second, Phillips has players cited for marijuana possession but has quickly reinstated them. Third, Ukwu said every team has “issues” as a way to look past what happened.
Phillips was asked if perhaps two chances for Caffey were not enough and if he would get another one.
“We are in the business of making sure the kids have an opportunity to succeed, definitely. We’re not a rehab center, a center that we’re going to continue to give guys chances,” Phillips said. “We love Marcus. This is all we got, okay? This is all we got. We’ll go with him until we feel like we can’t take it anymore. We’ve done it with other kids. But this is all he has, and we’ll continue to stick by him and help him get through all these things.”
Admirable. Probably even the right thing to do. But he’s not playing all year.
Cobbins will also now be on his third chance after his spring academic woes, but he’s played little and likely will play even less now with freshmen Demarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree emerging more daily.
Sanders, who has never been in any type of trouble at UK, will play Saturday at Florida. Count on that. He’s too good to stand and watch if he’s available. And we don’t know what the outcome of his case will be Oct. 9.
I asked Phillips if this was standard punishment and how he determined where Sanders would go back on the depth chart. He either misunderstood the standard punishment part or chose just to answer the depth chart question.
“We don’t have a standard. The thing we have to look at is how well a guy (George) performed that came in and replaced him, how well did the guy perform, take care of business, does what he’s supposed to do, never hear his name on any lists, goes to class. Jonathan George performed well enough to be the starter,” Phillips said.
George did as he ran for 51 yards and two scores and caught six passes for 54 yards and one touchdown. But the negativity of the Western loss only increases with the explanation about the players’ suspension.
“We have to tell ourselves to keep fighting. We have to practice hard because the better you practice, the better the games will be. We have to tell ourselves to stay positive, especially the older guys,” junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. “Some of the younger guys are kind of down, but we have to hold them up. The juniors, seniors and even sophomores have to help the freshmen out.”
What about the coaches? Do the players feel they need to help Phillips and his staff keep their jobs after a 1-2 start and consecutive losing seasons?
“We really try not to talk about it much. We just try to push that to the side and just go out and play. You can’t really worry about situations with coaches. That is not our issue to really worry about,” Williamson said. “That’s not in our hands. Well, it is in our hands. We have to win. That’s not our situation really to talk about. We have to do it for ourselves, for our teammates and play for each other.”
That last line is accurate, too, because after losing to Western and learning why players were suspended, the UK bandwagon is practically empty except for players and coaches that have to convince themselves they can overcome this horrendous weekend.