Kentucky football finds a leader in walk-on Benton

Junior walk-on moves to safety, earns starting spot for Cats

jtipton@herald-leader.comSeptember 15, 2011 

  • Series: UK leads 14-9 Last meeting: UK won 23-16 on Sept. 4, 2010

  • When: 7 p.m. Saturday Records: Louisville 1-1; Kentucky 2-0 TV: ESPNU

At first hearing, "Mikie" does not sound like a fitting football name. Kentucky safety Mikie Benton might strike a more rugged pose as "Mike" Benton. Or, better still, "Iron Mike" Benton.

"That's just what my parents call me," he said, smiling, of his kiddie-sounding first name. "I've been called Mikie forever."

Forever, it turns out, began when Benton was a toddler. With so many "Michaels" and "Juniors" in the family, his mother, Bettye, planned to use his middle name, Vandell, and call her son "Vand."

But her husband, Michael, foiled the plan.

"One day his dad came home from work," Bettye said. "He looked at his son in the crib and said, 'He looks like a Mikie.'"

Mikie it became with a brief detour to "Mike B" when he played for Russellville High.

With UK preparing to play rival Louisville on Saturday, Benton has made a name for himself as a walk-on who worked his way into the starting lineup despite twice changing positions along the way.

"You've got to applaud a young man like that," said Steve Brown, UK's co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach. "He's shown great perseverance."

Benton chose to walk on UK's football team rather than accept track scholarships from such schools as Notre Dame and Western Kentucky. He won state championships in the 110-meter hurdles as a junior and senior, and he finished second in the triple jump as a senior.

"Track was my better sport," he said this week. "Growing up, I had been playing football since I was 3 years old. It was big in my family."

Several uncles and cousins played football. Benton noted how one uncle played for Austin Peay "a long while ago."

When asked how long ago, Benton said, "I'd say the '70s. That's a good while ago."

Upon arriving at UK in 2008, Benton not only had to navigate the transition from high school to college. He also had to move from safety, the position he played in high school, to cornerback. He slowly progressed, playing on the scout team as a true freshman and redshirt freshman. As a third-year sophomore in 2010, he mainly played on special teams with spot duty as a reserve cornerback.

Going into this season, Kentucky coaches moved Benton to safety.

"I just took it with open arms," he said. "I felt it was a good opportunity for me."

UK Coach Joker Phillips attributed the switch to the relative abundance of depth at cornerback and the need for safeties. "We moved Mikie Benton, and lo and behold, he's starting in the first two games," Phillips said.

Brown considers Benton the quarterback of the secondary. An academic all-state selection as a high school junior and senior, he tries to make sure the defensive backs are properly aligned.

"The reason we moved him to safety is he's very bright," Brown said. "We felt a need to have somebody back there who could possibly get people lined up, and he's done that. ... He basically mentors."

That the coaches gave a walk-on a leadership role seems unusual.

"A lot of that has to do with numbers," Brown said of Benton's walk-on status. "I'm hoping in the near future he'll be put on scholarship because he deserves it. He's no different from other guys who've proven themselves. He's a great character guy that deserves to be (on scholarship)."

Of more immediate concern is the annual Kentucky-Louisville game. As with many families in the state, the game pits Benton against Benton.

"Trust me, I know it's a huge thing," Benton said. "I know with my family, half are Louisville and half are UK fans."

As Benton recalled, he had no choice but to root for Kentucky. Bettye saw to that.

"My mom is probably the biggest UK fan ever in life," he said. "Football, basketball, baseball, it could be water polo, my mom is cheering for UK. It's all I know."

Notes

■ Phillips said injured center Matt Smith practiced Wednesday, and the UK coach expects him to play Saturday.

"He looked pretty good," Phillips said of Smith's participation in practice. "I was expecting him to look like a freshman. But he didn't."

Phillips also said that injured wide receiver Brian Adams had recovered sufficiently to play Saturday.

■ Phillips reiterated a point Wednesday that he made at Monday's news conference: Quarterback Morgan Newton needs to make plays with his legs. "Morgan Newton is a threat when he pulls that ball down," Phillips said. "He needs to use that threat."

Noting a forced throw against Western Kentucky that led to an interception, Phillips said that when receivers are covered, "It's time to go. He needs to pull it down and make a play for us. Rather than try to stick it into a place where the guy has fallen down, and you get an interception."

■ Single-game tickets are available for all six remaining UK home games, the school announced Wednesday, including Saturday against Louisville.

Tickets for the Louisville game are $75 each. Tickets are $41 for the Jacksonville State game and $46 for games against Southeastern Conference opponents Florida, Mississippi State, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Visit the UK ticket office at the Joe Craft Center or call 1-800-928-2287 to order. Tickets are also available at TicketMaster locations, or online at ticketmaster.com or ukathletics.com.

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