Kentucky's 'joker' getting a handle on his humor and his game

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 4, 2012 

Tristian Johnson, defensive tackle. 2012 University of Kentucky Football team. Photo: UK Athletics

  • Saturday

    Mississippi State at Kentucky

    When: 12:21 p.m.

    Records: Mississippi State 4-0 (1-0 SEC); Kentucky 1-4 (0-2)

    TV: WKYT-27

It took a guy named Joker calling him out as a joker for Tristian Johnson to reassess his football future.

The junior defensive tackle had been telling his father that Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips had it in for him, that he was always riding him hard and picking on him.

"My dad came to a game one day and (Phillips) told my dad that I joke around a lot," Johnson recalled. "That really hurt me a lot for him to say I'm a joker and not a hard worker.

"My dad finally got to find out what was going on, and I got called out as a joker and now my dad knows the truth."

But the coach's call-out also helped Johnson see the truth: that he was a guy who had been in the UK program since 2009 and didn't have much to show for it.

Due to injury and his reputation for being a joker instead of a worker, Johnson had played in nine games and recorded one tackle and one pass breakup.

"Now I take it a lot more serious," Johnson said this week.

When asked if Johnson was taking his role on the team more seriously, defensive coordinator Rick Minter got quiet.

"You'd have to take his word for what he says," Minter said. "I'm not at liberty to tell you what I think."

Then he smiled and recanted a little.

"He's done a good job, but you know how kids are," Minter said. "He's kind of the jester, the court jester. He brings the sense of urgency, really sense of energy, passion to play, running around."

The sense of urgency was upped recently when Johnson was thrust into a starting spot two weeks ago in place of Mister Cobble, who was hospitalized with an infection. So there was Johnson earning his first career start at The Swamp in Florida.

Undersized at 265 pounds (to Cobble's 330 pounds), the junior held his own. As Cobble continued to recover from his infection last week, Johnson started against South Carolina as well, racking up six tackles and half of a quarterback sack.

In five games this season, Johnson has 12 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a quarterback hurry, as well as the sack assist.

Johnson's play against the bigger Gamecocks even drew a compliment from Minter. "You know what, if we had to say who played the best of our D-linemen the other night, it would be Tristian Johnson. The guy played like a champion."

Now, this doesn't mean that Johnson has become all business.

He's still a joker, his coaches said.

Defensive line coach David Turner said the difference now is that Johnson has found a happy medium.

"He still likes to have a good time, but he's working hard and is more focused out here in practice," Turner said.

Phillips credited Turner's coaching more than his own critique to Johnson's father as the reason for the turnaround.

"Coach Turner's been real persistent in staying on him," Phillips said. "Again, they don't always grow up as fast as we want them to."

It was even more complicated for Johnson when he saw Qua Huzzie, a close friend, transfer before the start of last season.

"Tristian Johnson was one of those guys that was probably headed to transferring himself," Phillips said on Thursday.

But instead of bolting, Johnson buckled down.

"He worked his tail off in the springtime, took care of his academics, which he hadn't always done, but now he's a guy that's been consistent," Phillips said. "Now he's a guy that you can count on. He's not always — he's still the joker. He's still the clown, class clown, but he picks his moments. He understands now when it's time to be serious."

Johnson probably won't see as much action this week against No. 20 Mississippi State. Cobble is back healthy and will start, but Johnson has given UK added depth on the defensive line, something it probably will need as the Southeastern Conference grind continues.

"It's good to be able to develop some depth," Turner said. "Hopefully it will allow us to keep guys a little bit fresher and allow us to play a little bit better over the course of four quarters."

Injury updates

Linebacker/safety hybrid Miles Simpson (bruised knee) practiced Thursday and is expected to be able to play Saturday, but UK is especially banged up at that position with Josh Forrest and Kory Brown both gimpy. Strong safety Ashely Lowery has been seeing time at that spot and Martavius Neloms moved to that spot at safety.

"Hey, gotta be creative," Phillips said. "That's where we're at. We've got to be creative."

■ Phillips said quarterback Maxwell Smith's ankle surgery went well on Tuesday, but he didn't offer a timetable for his return. "They think, again, it's going to be hard to get back this year, but we'll work toward it."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241Twitter: @jenheraldleaderBlog:

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