UK football: Harmon a receiver in DB's clothing

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 1, 2012 

UK cornerback J.D. Harmon (15) celebrated his second interception of Missouri quarterback Corbin Berkstresser last Saturday. Harmon, a freshman, starred at receiver at Paducah Tilghman.

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When he was a star wide receiver in high school, J.D. Harmon used to laugh at the Paducah Tilghman defensive backs and remind them that they were just receivers who couldn't catch.

When a reporter asked him about that this week, the 6-foot-2 freshman walk-on appeared sheepish.

"Now that I'm a DB, I can't really say that," he said.

He also can't really say that because in his case it's not true.

Harmon caught two consecutive interceptions on back-to-back passes from Missouri quarterback Corbin Berkstresser last weekend.

The first pick Harmon called "a gift" thrown directly to him.

The second one required a bit of his old wide receiving skills from Tilghman, where he had 107 career catches for 1,931 yards and 21 touchdowns.

"One was a routine play, but the other was a spectacular play, big time," defensive backs coach Mike Cassity said. "The receiver side of him came out in that play. He caught the ball, and landed on his back. It was really a nice play."

It was an especially nice play considering Harmon wasn't really supposed to be in the game.

Fellow true freshman Fred Tiller was banged up on the play before; starter Cody Quinn was out with a hamstring injury and Harmon heard coaches yelling for a corner.

"I started looking around and just jumped out there," Harmon explained.

He turned in a career performance with seven tackles and two interceptions, half the team total for Kentucky for the entire season.

"He played 60– something plays for us, had two interceptions, tackled well, did a really good job for us," UK head coach Joker Phillips said. "So things happen funny."

Not only was Harmon not supposed to be in the game on that play, he really wasn't supposed to be much of a difference maker for the Cats this season.

Originally, Kentucky had offered him a scholarship, but he took too long to make his decision and Phillips said he could come in as a grayshirt.

Harmon had some academic scholarship money available to him, so the initial plan was that he would "come in and just be a part– time guy," Phillips explained this week. "But once he got going, he wanted to come in and play. So the only option for him was to pay his own way."

Because he previously had been recruited to play football, he was forced to give up the academic money as well so he wouldn't count against UK's 85 scholarship limit.

So Harmon, who said former Tilghman teammate linebacker Josh Forrest persuaded him to come to UK, is paying his own way this season. Harmon will be allowed to go on scholarship this summer.

The former two-way star for the Blue Tornado gave up offers from Western Kentucky and Arkansas State. He said he also was talking to Ole Miss and Appalachian State when he decided to walk on at Kentucky.

Harmon is one of three freshman cornerbacks who have come on for the Cats this season, the others are Tiller (24 tackles, two pass breakups) and Quinn (19 tackles and UK-best three pass breakups).

All of them have been called into action frequently because of key injuries in the UK secondary.

The trio have had a friendly competition brewing since this summer when Harmon was still planning to be a UK wide receiver.

"Me and Cody would battle one on one all the time," Harmon said. "He'd make me better as a receiver and I'd make him better as a DB. When I switched over, we still had a competition for who could have the best coverage."

That has yet to be determined this season, but the UK coaches feel like the defense will be the winner for the next few seasons.

Some of the veteran players in the secondary are now fighting for playing time with the talented youngsters.

"What we're finding is sometimes when a guy — we never penalize a guy for being injured — but if a guy is really performing, sometimes it's hard to get your job back," Cassity said.

Harmon is one of those guys vying for a starting spot, although he admitted he still sometimes fantasizes about playing wide receiver again.

"Sometimes I kind of miss being out on the perimeter," he said.

But if he keeps catching opposing quarterbacks' passes, maybe he won't miss it so much.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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