Micah Johnson's senior season hasn't begun the way he'd like.
Johnson, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference linebacker last year, considered skipping his senior season to enter the NFL Draft before deciding to return to Kentucky to improve his stock in 2010.
But when the Wildcats kick off the season Saturday against Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, Johnson might not be in the lineup.
Johnson, who's on the pre-season watch lists for the Nagurski and Lombardi awards, suffered what was diagnosed as a sprained foot in practice last week. He returned to practice Tuesday and made it through most of the workout without any major problems.
But Johnson suffered a setback Wednesday and was unable to finish practice. UK Coach Rich Brooks said it's possible Johnson might not play Saturday. He said Johnson's injury is in the area of the foot where plantar fasciitis generally occurs.
"We'll just have to judge his foot (Thursday) and see how it responds," Brooks said.
Plantar fasciitis involves pain and inflammation of a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of the foot.
When asked whether there's a chance Johnson could miss Saturday's game, Brooks said, "There is a chance of that, yes."
Johnson played through a high ankle sprain for most of last season and hoped for an injury-free 2009. He said Tuesday that his foot injury isn't as serious as the ankle problem he faced last season, but that was before the most recent flare-up.
"Hopefully, I'll be able not only to play, but to play well," Johnson said. "I was in a pass-rush drill, came off the edge and felt a pop, but I'm just glad it wasn't anything too major."
The Wildcats have had a rash of foot and ankle injuries so far in camp. In order to prepare for the artificial surface at Paul Brown Stadium, UK has been practicing on a similar turf on the Tim Couch Practice Fields at the Nutter Training Facility, and Brooks said that might have contributed to the foot and ankle injuries.
Senior running back Alfonso Smith has battled a bruised foot. Freshman tailback Jonathan George and senior fullback John Conner suffered sprained ankles.
"We've spent more time on this surface, and I think that has a little bit to do with some of the foot and ankle problems," Brooks said. "It makes it harder to get those things well than it does playing on natural grass."
Conner participated in practice Wednesday, and Brooks said he'll see how the ankle responds Thursday before making a decision on his status for Miami.
Even if Johnson plays, Brooks isn't expecting him to be 100 percent, noting that Johnson fell behind in his conditioning even before the injury when he and his brother, Christian, went to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to see their father, Skip, promoted to a full colonel in the Army.
Johnson has practiced once since the injury occurred last Thursday.
"There's no way you can be at peak efficiency when you've missed five or six days of practice and you haven't really conditioned and gotten in football shape during that time," Brooks said. "You can lose it pretty fast."
Sophomore Ronnie Sneed and senior Mikhail Mabry would fill in at middle linebacker if Johnson can't go, but defensive coordinator Steve Brown said a less than 100 percent Johnson is better than no Johnson at all.
"He adds a dimension for us when he's out there," Brown said. "If he plays, whether he's 100 percent or 85 or whatever it is, I expect great things from him."
Christian Johnson said his younger brother wants to play Saturday and is going into the season with something to prove.
"In a sense, I think he feels he may have some people doubting him and his abilities," he said. "I know Micah's anxious to get out there and play and show what he's got and be a leader on the team."
Christian said he could sense that the expectations and fanfare were weighing on Micah at times. Micah came to UK as one of the most touted Wildcats prospects of the decade and was hailed as a savior from the moment he stepped on campus. Once he finally got through the growing pains and began to live up to the hype, the injury bug bit, first during the Middle Tennessee game last year, and now in fall camp this year.
"I think the pressure may have gotten to him a little bit," Christian said. "And it is hard. It is a lot of pressure. But now he's just got to go out there and prove that he's worthy of all the pressure that's been put on him."
Micah doesn't deny that he has a chip on his shoulder.
"I definitely do," he said. "I feel like I always have something to prove every time I go out there. There's still people that doubt me and don't think I'm a great linebacker or have me rated very high. I just want to come out and prove some people wrong, and do it for myself and the people who do believe in me, my fans and my family."
The good news for Johnson is that whether he plays or not in the Miami game, he'll be able to use UK's open date before the Sept. 19 home opener with Louisville to heal and catch up on his conditioning.
"If I'm able to go out there and go as hard as I can, then I'll have two weeks to get ready for Louisville," he said.