LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's freshmen are experiencing an extended orientation as the Wildcats battle through what has been an injury-plagued season.
Injuries have forced the Wildcats to play 26 so far. Kentucky has played 14 true freshmen, that ranks in the top five nationally.
Three — quarterback Jalen Whitlow, cornerback Cody Quinn and punter Landon Foster — will start Saturday at Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference).
While youth partly explains Kentucky's start (1-5, 0-3 SEC), the youngsters are also making significant contributions.
Foster is ninth among SEC punters; Whitlow and fellow freshmen QB Patrick Towles (now injured) led scoring drives last week against No. 19 Mississippi State; Quinn will make his fourth straight start.
The situation has resulted in a quick, but sometimes painful, maturation process.
"You know what? It's a great opportunity for a lot of younger guys and it's kind of an eye-opening experience being thrust into action and having no other choice," said starting left guard Zach West, a redshirt freshman. "It's definitely getting guys to grow up a lot quicker."
Freshmen have seen time on both sides of the ball, though the offense has experienced its share of changes lately. Especially at quarterback, where Whitlow will play his third straight game and make his second consecutive start.
He started the season on third string before becoming the backup with senior Morgan Newton's move to H-back. Sophomore Maxwell Smith's ankle injury two weeks ago changed everything, moving Whitlow into the starter's role last week with a plan of alternating with Towles.
Towles' sprained right ankle sustained before halftime of the 27-14 loss has changed the plan again. The latest depth chart lists Whitlow, Newton and freshman Jeff Witthuhn, a walk-on.
Though Whitlow gives the Wildcats some continuity, he knows only half the playbook and the coaches are hoping he stays healthy to avoid using another alternative.
"I'd much rather not have to deal with it, honestly," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Tuesday of all the changes. "It's nice when you have one guy and you can play with him and he gets (repetitions).
"The problem is you're going to make mistakes until you get all the reps. We're still working our way through some of those mistakes."
The defense has gone through its share of growing pains as well. Eight of nine linebackers are either freshman or sophomores, and those classes comprise three-quarters of the secondary.
Saturday's game could see twin safeties Daron and Zack Blaylock join Quinn in the starting lineup, trying to defend against an Arkansas offense averaging 301.3 yards per game passing.
"Why not?," defensive coordinator Rick Minter asked. "We just have to close ranks and march on with those that we have. If we're young, we're young. Everybody was young at one time and stars are born every day."
Said Daron Blaylock, "I kind of expected to get some playing time when I got here, but starting this game is a great opportunity."
As tough as it's been for Kentucky during a four-game losing streak, the Wildcats believe they might reap benefits soon from the youth movement. Through all the mistakes the freshman and sophomores have made, they're also displaying an attitude that has impressed coaches and veteran players.
Foster is coming off a game in which he averaged 43.8 yards on eight punts including a career-best 56-yarder with three inside the 20. Whitlow is getting a better grasp of the offense and just needs to make decisions sooner, Sanders said.
Quinn showed no jitters in his first start at Florida last month and has posted eight tackles and two pass breakups in three games. Backup linebacker Khalid Henderson has 13 tackles while cornerback Fred Tiller has 12.
"Seeing the leadership they've have in front of them, they've done well by picking things up and getting ready for their opportunities," senior cornerback Cartier Rice said. "They're staying focused, staying locked in. They're eager and they know they have to step up and fill those roles. They're not flinching."
Henderson said the freshmen bonded immediately, helping them adapt to being on campus and then the program.
Though things have happened much faster than they imagined, they haven't been totally surprised being part of the picture.
"We have an excellent freshman class and I expect all to them to come in here, improve and earn a spot," Henderson said. "They (the coaches) told me an opportunity was there.
"They didn't tell me, 'here, we have a spot for you,' they just told me if you come in and do what you're supposed to do, come in and earn your spot, that's the way it is. The best players are going to play at the end of the day."
But as the Wildcats have carried out coach Joker Phillips' 'next-man-up' philosophy, the changes have also forced the coaching staff to become more patient with their development. If things had gone as planned, freshman and sophomores would be learning from the veterans, preparing for their opportunities down the road.
Instead, those players have been going through on-the-job training while the coaches have changed their perspective.
Asked the hardest part of coaching freshmen, Phillips said, "They don't all know as much as they think they know. Most of the guys that have come here (have) been the best athletes on the field. And a lot of times they don't know as much as they think they know. Or they're not as fast as they think that they are. ...
"And we have all been them. I was one of them, too."