Mark Story: Ex-UK tailback Matt Denham finds comfort, stardom at EKU

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 2, 2012 

RICHMOND — As the walk-on who developed into an All-American, Matt Denham wears No. 22 for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels.

The running back's post-football goal is to change his number to 007.

"I'd like to be some type of agent — FBI, CIA, maybe U.S. Marshals," says the EKU criminal justice and police studies major. "I want to be James Bond."

A season ago, Denham, a former John Hardin High School star and University of Kentucky football player, turned in one of the more improbable success stories in Kentucky college football.

Claiming the starting tailback job four games into the 2011 season after Jeremiah Williams got hurt, Denham blew up into a national-level star.

In his first game as Eastern's No. 1 tailback, Denham ravaged Eastern Illinois for 216 yards.

Then he never slowed down.

By the season's end, Denham had eight-straight games of 100-plus yards rushing. He was one of only two backs in all the FCS to run for 200-plus yards in four different contests. He finished as the No. 3 rusher in the FCS and as a third-team All-American.

Says Denham: "After all I'd been through, not getting recruited (out of high school) like I thought I should have, walking on at UK, leaving UK, transferring here, walking on again (at EKU), to see the fruits of my labor, it was a pretty good feeling."

If nothing else, the success of Matt Denham is reminder No. 1.47 billion of how inexact a science football recruiting is.

Battling CoShik at UK

In the fall of 2008, the University of Kentucky was playing host to a competition among walk-on running backs that would subsequently have dramatic impact on college football in the commonwealth.

Denham, then listed at 5-foot-10 and 172 pounds, came to UK after being a high school star at John Hardin High School in Hardin County.

"He's as good a running back as I've ever coached," says Mark Brown, who has built John Hardin into a state power after leading Nelson County to an improbable Class 4A state title in 1996. "But he was not 6-foot-3; he was fast, but he didn't run a 4.3 40. I guess he didn't really pass the eye test for what the big-time schools want, so he didn't get an offer."

With no major-college scholarship, Denham signed with NCAA Division II Kentucky State. Subsequent to signing, Denham starred in the Kentucky East-West All-Star Game, running for 143 yards and earning MVP honors for the victorious West.

In his heart, he felt he was capable of "going bigger" than KSU. Eventually, Denham got out of his letter of intent with Kentucky State, accepted an academic scholarship to UK and walked on to the Wildcats football team.

At UK, Denham was in the same class with a guy who had a story identical to his. CoShik Williams had been a star running back at Hiram High School in Georgia, but the 5-9 jitterbug had no scholarship offers. On the recommendation of his former high school teammate, then-UK star cornerback Trevard Lindley, Williams too walked on at UK.

"CoShik, he was a baller," Denham says now. "He beat me out. He was a lot better than I was at that point and time. I got caught up in the college life and all that stuff and pretty much wasn't focusing on my game, the football, like CoShik was."

By the time of spring practice, 2009, Denham says he had fallen behind in the weight room and had not learned his playbook to the extent he should have. In his heart, he had decided that Kentucky was not the place for him.

"In the spring, I just lost it," he said. "I didn't feel comfortable (at UK). I felt like I was not at home. I lost my confidence at UK. I just felt like I needed to transfer."

Becoming an EKU star

Having grown up in a military family (both his mom, Kathy, and father, Paul, served in the U.S. Army), Denham was used to making transitions.

Once he decided to leave UK, Denham placed a call to EKU assistant Dane Damron. In his former job as head coach at Kentucky Christian, Damron had tried to recruit Denham.

"When I got here, he had gone to UK, and he contacted me about coming here," Damron said. "I went right down to Coach (Dean) Hood (the EKU head coach) and said 'This kid was missed.'"

Yet after walking on again at Eastern, Denham was anything but an instant star. Early on, he was mostly a special-teams player. When he got chances to run the ball, he showed promise. After his sophomore year, Denham says Hood put him on scholarship.

Still, entering last season Denham was No. 2 on the EKU depth chart.

"He got a little frustrated," Paul Denham says of his son. "But I'm retired Army. I just told him he had to fight for opportunities, then maximize them when they came."

Last year, Matt Denham finally got a chance to start. To say the least, he maximized it.

It's funny how things work out. Four seasons after they were both overlooked, undersized UK walk-ons, Denham and Williams both had 2011 seasons to remember.

While Denham was becoming an FCS All-American at EKU, Williams finished his junior season at Kentucky as the starting tailback. He produced two 100-plus-yards rushing games and scored the only Wildcats touchdown in the streak-busting upset of Tennessee.

"I talk to CoShik," Denham said. "I'm really happy for him. If I had stayed at Kentucky and done the work I needed to do, I might have gotten that chance, too. But I don't have any regrets. I believe things happen for a reason."

Having become an EKU star in 2011, the guy who aspires to be another 007 will be anything but undercover in 2012.

Says Denham: "I still think of myself as the walk-on. I promise you, I won't slack off or get complacent. I'm still hungry, hungry for more."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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