Following a poor defensive effort in the season opener against Louisville, UK football head coach Joker Phillips was left with a difficult decision: stick with veterans who made mistakes in the opener or give more opportunities to freshmen who might make similar mistakes but are arguably more talented.
Judging from Phillips comments to the media this week, fans can expect the later.
“Every year we’ve said ‘Alright, these guys are good enough to play,’ but we kind of get a little nervous (about playing freshmen),” Phillips said Thursday. “To heck with that. Let those guys play.”
Among the freshmen fans can expect to play more on defense Saturday against Kent State are linebackers Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas and cornerbacks J. D. Harmon and Fred Tiller.
Each of those players made brief appearances in the season opener, but fans can expect them to have expanded roles against Kent State.
“Why not? Talent will overcome experience any day,” Phillips said Tuesday. “If you’re making mistakes as a sophomore or junior, it’s no different than a freshman who is really talented.”
Khalid Henderson. (Photo from UK Athletics)
Henderson is competing for playing time at the weakside linebacker spot vacated by now Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. Redshirt sophomores Tyler Brause and Malcolm McDuffen saw the most time at the position in week one.
McDuffen was listed as the starter on the depth chart released Tuesday, but on Wednesday UK linebackers coach Chuck Smith said the starting weakside linebacker spot is still very much up for grabs. Henderson has even received some first-team reps in practice this week.
Pancho Thomas. (Photo from UK Athletics)
Thomas started on the UK kick return team in week one. He will continue in his special teams role as well as seeing time at middle linebacker behind junior Avery Williamson.
“You can tell leading up to the game that it was different for him,” Phillips said of Thomas. “A lot of things became different with the way he approached it the closer were got to game day. He deserves to play.”
Fred Tiller. (Photo from UK Athletics)
In the secondary, Harmon and Tiller saw most of their playing time on third down in week one. Tiller was beat on a long reception by one Louisville receiver, but his position coach still wants to see more out of the duo.
“The guy ran a crossing route all the way across the field and got a step on him,” said UK defensive backs coach Mike Cassity. “They made an nice throw and catch. I’d like to get those freshmen out there a lot more.”
For Harmon, the early playing time is especially remarkable as he came to UK as a walk-on wide receiver but was moved to cornerback just before the start of fall camp.
J. D. Harmon. (Photo from UK Athletics)
He made an immediate impact in the weight room during the summer, and was able to impress his coaches so much that they listed him as the starting nickel back before the season.
“All the hard work you put in in the weight room kind of shows on the field,” Harmon said. “When we did seven-on-sevens, one-on-ones, it actually showed up on the field. I think that’s what gave me a bit of an edge.”
Harmon, who played at Paducah Tilghman High School, said he has had no trouble transitioning to cornerback.
“The only adjustment was getting to know the defense,” he said. “It’s a little bit more complicated than the offense. It really wasn’t that difficult for me.”
If the UK freshmen find the field on defense Saturday, they will be tasked with helping the Wildcats overcome a host of problems from week one. Many of the issues resulted from incorrect alignments or adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
“There were times it was not good from the start,” said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter. “There were times it was good from the start, and it was a personnel breakdown. Everything that could and would happen did. Hopefully it a bunch of was first-game errors that we can eliminate.”
The statistics from Sunday’s game certainly backup Minter’s conclusion.
The UK defense was gashed for 466 total yards by Louisville, including 219 rushing yards. Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards.
Louisville scored touchdowns on drives of 99 yards, 85 yards, 93 yards in the first half. UK’s best defensive showing of the game came in the fourth quarter with the score out of hand and Bridgewater on the bench.
The NCAA has not released stats for games after Sept. 1, but the 446 total yards allowed by the UK defense would rank 88th among the teams that had played to that point.
Minter didn’t mince words in the aftermath of the Louisville loss about how disappointed he was in his unit’s performance, but Wednesday he said it was time to move on.
“Nobody should feel very good about how we played — ourselves or our players or our fans,” he said. “It’s got to be a brighter day than that, but life goes on. That’s the way you have to do it.
“Something bad happens to you, but don’t let Louisville beat you twice. Don’t let us wallow around for two or three days and then all of the sudden lose the next game because you’re still looking back.”
Most of the first-team defense that starts the game against Kent State Saturday will likely be the same unit that faced Louisville, but if Phillips and his staff stay true to their word plenty of freshmen will play a role in putting that loss behind them.
“When you give up 460-something yards and you are a junior, why not put a freshman in there and see if we can give up 400 (with a guy) that’s more talented than those guys?” Phillips said. “They deserve to play. They’ll get an opportunity, but we’ve got to simplify it for them.”