An early touch of winter with cool temperatures and a chilly wind in the Lexington area on Wednesday did not keep the University of Kentucky football team from having an upbeat and spirited practice at the Tim Couch Practice Fields.
“Pretty spirited practice,” Phillips said. “(Quarterback) Jalen Whitlow is getting about 75 percent of the reps. I think that is in order to get him ready to operate in this game. Defensively, I like the way we flew around also. We are still practicing a lot of young guys in the back end, but they are willing and those young guys are practicing fast.”
First on the agenda this week at practice has been preparing true freshman quarterback Whitlow for his second career start this weekend against Arkansas. The athletic QB has played in each of UK’s last three games, including extensive time the last two weeks.
“He has been really sharp,” Phillips said when asked how Whitlow has practiced this week. “He really is just now starting to figure out what he can do and what he likes and then we expand on that. The ball is getting out of his hand fast, which is important and he has pretty good command of it. That is the thing we have to do is continue to work him. That is why he is getting about 75 percent of the reps because we think he can improve over time if he continues to get the reps.”
Phillips said after UK’s loss at Florida that he was resistant to playing Whitlow in such a tough road environment, but after the experience the true freshman has gained the last two weeks that doesn’t appear to be the case this weekend.
“He has played a lot more plays and played in ‘The Swamp’ in the fourth quarter,” Phillips said. “You can say he was the starter against South Carolina, coming in two plays into it. South Carolina is one of the best defenses in the country and we saw that last week. Same with the Florida bunch, if you didn’t see last week, they are one of the better defenses in the country, and then Mississippi State. So he has played against some pretty good opponents. I think he is more than ready now to go down and be the starter. One of the things is that he has no choice now.”
Phillips and the UK coaching staff have been pleased overall with Whitlow’s ability to make plays, but Phillips said Tuesday that the biggest impression Whitlow has left is his calm demeanor and ability to communicate.
“I really like how calm he is,” Phillips said. “I have never seen a guy that is a freshman that is as calm and laid back. He comes off the field and can communicate with you what he is seeing. He makes mistakes, but he understands them. But just how clam he is is one of the things that you like about him. He is not a really talkative kid either, but he does a good job of communicating back to you the things that he sees. That is what I like about him, is the guy is really cool and nothing rattles him.”
As for sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith and true freshman quarterback Patrick Towles, who are both out with injuries, Phillips said Smith is looking to be out 5-6 weeks, while Towles will continue to be evaluated to see how he is healing.
Defensively, the preparation this week has been to continue to develop the youth in the secondary due to injuries to seniors Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton, and sophomore Ashely Lowery. Filling in are five true freshmen in safeties Zach Blaylock and Daron Blaylock, along with cornerbacks J.D. Harmon, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn.
“It is a challenge, but it’s an opportunity for some young guys that we have brought here,” Phillips said about playing a young secondary against a talented quarterback in Tyler Wilson. “All five of the freshmen are going to play. We expected them to help us this year, but didn’t expect them to be starting in our fourth SEC game. We will play them, throw them out there and see how it goes.”
Neloms, Benton and Lowery did not practice Tuesday. Phillips said they would be reevaluated Wednesday and if they could not go they would not make the trip to Arkansas.
Kentucky will return to the practice field on Thursday for the final true on-field practice of the week.