LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — By now, nothing should surprise Kentucky's underclassmen.
Injuries have created significant playing opportunities for more than two dozen freshmen and sophomores against Southeastern Conference heavyweights — including Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Another foe ranked in the top 15 looms Saturday night when No. 13 Georgia (5-1, 3-1 SEC) comes to Lexington seeking a rebound after losing to South Carolina two weeks ago. That likely means another tough lesson for Kentucky (1-6, 0-4).
The Wildcats are learning — and losing — as they go and last Saturday night's 49-7 loss at Arkansas featured more growing pains. The Razorbacks opened with a 74-yard touchdown pass, led 42-0 at halftime and outgained Kentucky 533-170 in a game shortened to 40 minutes by storms.
Georgia has dominated the series with Kentucky, 51-12-2.
"Every time they go out they experience something new as far as the sets and different formations they see," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said of his young team on Monday. "But the thing that you see is that they don't forget what they see in a new set, and they do a really good job of retaining those types of things.
"Again, every time they go out they are going to experience something new. But I think it's good. Nothing wrong with it. You're going to have it when you're playing (with) such a young team."
Kentucky's secondary, listing five true freshmen and two sophomores on the two-deep depth chart, could start several rookies against Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Seniors Mikie Benton and cornerback Cartier Rice are considered doubtful while senior Martavius Neloms, sophomore Ashely Lowery and freshman Fred Tiller are day-to-day with injuries that Phillips didn't specify.
That creates the possibility of freshmen corners Cody Quinn (who has started the past four games) and J.D. Harmon, and twin safeties Daron and Zack Blaylock facing Murray, fourth in the SEC in passing yards per game (247.8) and fifth in efficiency (159.3).
This, after Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson completed 23 of 31 passes for 372 yards and five touchdowns including a 77-yarder. The 533 yards allowed were a season high for Kentucky, 11th in SEC total defense (415.6).
Wildcats junior linebacker Avery Williamson doesn't expect that low point to affect the younger players' confidence.
"We've just got to keep on bringing them along, let them learn from the mistakes of the game and letting them progress," he said.
Williamson added that simplifying things has helped the learning process, keeping them from overthinking coverages. That seemed to benefit the Blaylock twins, who made their first starts against Arkansas and combined for eight tackles.
However, the five-game losing streak and player turnover has posed challenges of keeping defensive players focused after falling behind and motivated during long stretches on the field. That includes upperclassmen who have been trying to set the example.
"We've got to be leaders as juniors, sophomores and seniors, and we tell those guys that we got to keep fighting," Williamson said. "They're young. It's a long, physical season and it's been tough on the older guys as well, but we have to keep them physical."
The Wildcats' offense has had to learn this as well.
Kentucky is coming off a season low in yardage and a combined 4 of 15 passing for 104 yards between freshman Jalen Whitlow and senior backup Morgan Newton. The upside: Whitlow threw his first touchdown pass against the Razorbacks, a 61-yarder to La'Rod King.
"Every snap he (Whitlow) gets is only good for him being able to grow in this program," Phillips said.
The task now is giving him time to make decisions.
"The best thing you can do when you have a young quarterback is keep encouraging him," center Matt Smith said. "It's a lot of pressure, but the guys that have been in there before and us on the offensive line, we have to give him time back there and establish a running game to get the pressure off of him. We just have to make sure we stay together as a team."
Even if Kentucky was healthy and experienced, it likely would have struggled against this stretch of ranked teams. But in playing so many youngsters so soon, the Wildcats believe they're creating depth that could help them close the season on a high note.
Kentucky finishes against Missouri (3-4, 0-4 SEC), Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3), non-conference Samford (5-2) and Tennessee (3-3, 0-3). Though it's hard to predict what the Wildcats will do, these games present opportunities for the youngsters to show what they learned from their hands-on training.
"We need to get some guys back, no question about that," Phillips said. "But it does give you encouragement that those guys have been on the road and played some significant snaps."