HOOVER, Ala. — Kentucky coach Joker Phillips believes last year's mediocre season is a minor bump on the road to consistent success.
The Wildcats played in five straight bowl games from 2006 to '10, but regressed to a 5-7 record last season. They ended the year on a high note, beating Tennessee for the first time since 1984, but must replace many key players.
At Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday, Phillips said Kentucky had done a good job of stocking quality young players during the bowl streak and "now those guys have to go out and play."
Phillips said several inexperienced players made important plays during the program's 2-2 finish to the 2011 season, particularly in the galvanizing Tennessee victory, and that bodes well for the coming fall.
"There were a lot of young kids making plays for us late in the season, especially the last four games," Phillips said. "You look out there, the last game, probably four or five true freshmen were playing for us on defense."
Kentucky returns 11 starters, including receiver La'Rod King and quarterback Morgan Newton. King led the team with 40 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
But the Wildcats will rely on several young players to step up and help immediately. Phillips said one of them will be sophomore linebacker Alvin Dupree, who he called "a guy that someday will be ... a household name in the state of Kentucky."
That's tough to do in Kentucky, where the household names tend to be confined to the basketball court. Phillips said that even though Kentucky is viewed as a basketball school, he uses the basketball program's exposure as an advantage for football recruiting and selling his program.
Both Phillips and senior offensive lineman Matt Smith praised the Wildcats' incoming freshmen and weren't shy about saying they would be on the field quickly.
Phillips said 26 of the 44 players on Kentucky's two-deep depth chart are freshmen or sophomores. The third-year coach said some may view that as "disastrous," but he was confident the Wildcats have more quality players than ever before.
"They've got to understand that we're going to need them," Smith said. "In years' past a lot of freshmen have come in and haven't been able to contribute right away except for one or two here and there. But with the recruiting our coaches have done and how good a job they've done bringing in athletic guys that are smart and can learn and pick up things on the fly, we're going to need a lot of help from them."
Smith said if the new talent can mesh with some of the older players, the players will be celebrating a bowl trip and not just a victory over Tennessee.
"It's fun to be home with your family for Christmas," Smith said. "But not for that long."