LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips is heading into his third season with a gambler's attitude.
His roster is full of young talent that has pushed its way to the top of the Wildcats' depth chart. As Kentucky's promising youth goes, so will Phillips.
Of the top 44 players on Kentucky's depth chart going into the fall, 26 were either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. That does not include six upperclassmen projected to be starters for the first time or any incoming freshmen who Phillips expects to earn playing time by the season opener Sept. 2 at Louisville.
The hope is the youngsters will prosper quickly like a similar group of Wildcats did in 2006. Then, with Phillips as offensive coordinator, 24 of the 44 on the two-deep depth chart were either freshmen or sophomores. That team finished 8-5 and won the program's first bowl game, a 28-20 Music City Bowl win over Clemson, since 1984.
"It reminds me of the leadership at the top, and the talent at the bottom," Phillips said. "That reminds me of the '06 team. We still got to go out and play, but the makeup of the team reminds me of that."
It's still possible Phillips could start a sophomore or a true freshman at quarterback. A four-man quarterback competition remains unresolved between senior Morgan Newton, sophomore Maxwell Smith, and true freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Phillips has maintained all four are being considered, though offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Newton has not yet fully recovered from December surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Sanders also said "it's pretty easy to say" newcomers Towles and Whitlow are behind Smith and Newton in the competition.
Smith seems to be the front-runner for now. Smith started three games in 2011 as a true freshman after Newton hurt his shoulder, and he earned All-SEC freshman honors. He completed 84 of 153 pass attempts for 819 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
The challenge for any freshman trying to earn a starting job, Smith said, is proving to the upperclassmen that he belongs. That's what Smith faced when he got onto the field in 2011.
"It's the SEC, not high school anymore," Smith said. "So you have to come in and prove yourself, and I felt like that even though I might not have played great or anything, I showed I have the ability to play. Now I have a better grasp of the offense and the defenses and the speed of the game."
Attrition hit the Wildcats' defense especially hard. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter was forced to replace players that accounted for 58.2 percent of Kentucky's tackles, 50 percent of the sacks and 86.7 percent of interceptions last season.
At least the Wildcats have both talent and experience on the defensive line where it's the only area that returns all starters from last season. Junior tackles Donte Rumph (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) and Mister Cobble (6-0, 331 pounds) also bring plenty of size on the interior linemen while combining for 64 tackles in 2011. Phillips said with those two and senior end Collins Ukwu the defensive line is the strength of his team.
Kentucky gets to host South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt at Commonwealth Stadium this season, though the Wildcats will visit Florida, Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee in the SEC. The Wildcats also will host Western Kentucky, Kent State and Samford.
Experience elsewhere will be spread thin, but Phillips said he has been encouraged by the willingness of his young players to grow up quickly.
"We've got a great locker room right now," he said. "I love this locker room. We've got guys that are doing things the right way, especially the guys up top leading the young guys. We need all 105 of those players with us when we get to Sept. 2."