LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Overlooked in the season-long talk about Kentucky's underclassmen are 19 seniors who helped with the development of their young teammates.
The seniors' contributions will be recognized before Saturday night's home finale against Samford (7-3) and they intend to follow up that emotional ceremony with their first victory in over two months.
A lot has happened since Kentucky (1-9) routed Kent State 47-14 on Sept. 8. Injuries have forced the Wildcats to use 46 underclassmen including 26 freshmen, and their inexperience has been exploited during an eight-game losing streak.
That skid led to coach Joker Phillips' firing as coach on Nov. 4. He will coach until the end of the season.
While this wasn't what Kentucky's seniors envisioned in their final season, this is a chance to reclaim that winning feeling.
"It would be exciting since it's my last time in Commonwealth Stadium," said senior defensive end Collins Ukwu, who leads Kentucky with four sacks. "I think it'll be fun. I'm just anxious to get back on the field, honestly."
So is Phillips, who will be making his final home appearance with Kentucky. He has said his desire to guide his seniors to the end of their Wildcats' careers factored into his decision to return for the final two games.
Bittersweet as that might be this weekend after being associated with the school for nearly three decades as a player, assistant and head coach, Phillips stresses that Saturday's game is about the players and not him.
"I had my senior day," he said. "That's one of the reasons why I considered not coming back is because I don't want to be a distraction. ... I don't need any treatment, special treatment or anything. I want those guys that have been here and given all they have for this program to be rewarded.
"I appreciate the guys that continued to buy the dreams that we were selling and the seniors did get a couple bowl games."
The Wildcats are coming off a bye week that gave them time to digest Phillips' dismissal. It allowed the seniors to reflect on the opportunities their coach provided and how their careers have developed as a result.
While their impact didn't show in Kentucky's record this season, the rapid development of Kentucky's youngsters might end up defining their legacies. From big things on the field such as teaching them the nuances of their positions to smaller matters off of it such as showing them around the massive campus, the underclassmen are grateful for helping their learning curves.
The senior leadership could be even more important in helping the underclassmen transition to a new coaching staff.
"That's the thing that's going to hurt a lot, not being able to play with the guys I've been around my whole career," junior defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said. "The people I've looked up to my entire career will be gone entering my senior year and now it's going to be guys looking up to me.
"The things I took from the seniors in this program, I've got to try to use them and help the guys coming up."
Ironically, the youngsters' growth and enthusiasm has rubbed off on the seniors to keep working toward ending the losing streak. Kentucky and Samford will be meeting for the first time.
The Bulldogs have won two in a row and enter the game averaging 376.6 yards per game on offense. Senior quarterback Andy Summerlin has passed for 2,165 yards and 10 touchdowns.
After a grueling stretch against the tough Southeastern Conference, facing a Football Championship Subdivision member could help Kentucky get back on track. But the Wildcats can't take any opponent for granted right now, and their underclassmen have been especially passionate in practice about seeing what a victory celebration is like.
Hearing that convinces defensive end/linebacker Taylor Wyndham that he and his fellow seniors have done their jobs.
"Things have happened and the season didn't turn out, but you can't look at it like that," he said "You just go day by day and game by game. I've just got to enjoy every minute of it.
"That's the biggest thing of this season. You have to get the young guys to do what they're supposed to do, do the right things and keep things rolling to get this program better. That's what I and the other seniors have tried to emphasize."