UK's walk-on wide receivers grabbing attention

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 13, 2013 

  • Key dates for UK football

    SEASON OPENER

    Aug. 31: vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 7 p.m.

    HOME OPENER

    Sept. 7: vs. Miami (Ohio), noon

Zach West admits to coming out of his offensive line stance quickly to glance downfield.

"All the line, we are all sneaking to look," the Kentucky sophomore said. "They are making these amazing catches."

He's not discussing the new freshman wide receivers — although they've received plenty of praise since camp started last week. West is talking about the Cats' walk-on wide receivers.

Some you might mistake for kickers or managers. But they're making some acrobatic snags and catching some eyes.

"Coaches said it today: Playmakers are going to get playing time, so everybody is trying to make a play because they want coaches to see they can play well," said Austin Sheehan, a walk-on from Highlands, favorite target of quarterback Patrick Towles when they led the Bluebirds to four straight state championships.

Riding in from Texas Tech with offensive coordinator Neal Brown was a pass-happy Air Raid-style attack. Problem was, Brown walked into a less than ideal situation. UK returns just four wide receivers from last season's team.

The four combined for 57 catches for 581 total yards with no touchdowns. The Red Raiders' second-best receiver last season, Eric Ward, had 25 more catches and nearly double the yards (1,053) of UK's four returners combined, along with 12 scores.

For the Air Raid attack to be effective, the Cats need way more than one or two guys who can catch the ball. Texas Tech had 17 players with multiple receptions last season, including 11 with 15 catches or more.

Texas Tech wanted to have "10 guys on the bus," so it could go two deep at each spot and then have guys who could roll between different positions, explained wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord, who came to Kentucky with Brown.

Right now, UK has four returnees — Daryl Collins, Rashad Cunningham, A.J. Legree and Demarco Robinson — to go with four newcomers in Jeff Badet, Javess Blue, Alex Montgomery and Ryan Timmons.

That's eight guys on the bus, plus a couple of potential wide receiver converts in tight ends Ronnie Shields and Steven Borden.

The math says walk-ons like Sheehan, former Conner standout (and favorite target of Cats commit Drew Barker) Cameron Fogle, former UK baseball player Lucas Witt, junior-college transfer Joey Herrick and redshirt freshman Miles Thompson (from Manual) all have a legitimate shot to see time this season.

It's a great time to be a walk-on receiver at Kentucky, Mainord said.

"Our walk-on group has really taken to the speed of college football," he said. "So I'm really excited to have them here and I'm really pleased with what I've seen so far."

When asked who among the walk-ons had caught his eye, the way they've got the offensive linemen's eyes, Mainord had a simple reply: all of them.

"This is not a sarcastic answer; they're all standing out," he said. "Their effort is good. They're coachable. I'm just really pleased."

It's not just the wide receivers coach talking up his talent, either. Brown nodded in agreement when asked if there were some walk-on wide receivers who could help the Cats.

"Yes, there are," he said. "I'm pleased with our walk-ons now. ... Really pleased with those kids as a whole."

And they're pleased to have the opportunity.

"I'm getting lots of chances, rolling with the twos and the threes right now," said Sheehan, who saw playing time in the Blue-White Spring Game. In his senior season at Highlands, he had 29 catches for 1,013 yards and eight touchdowns. Sheehan had a nation's-best 34.9 yards per catch average. "Being a walk-on, having this chance, it's been a great experience."

For Witt, a former left fielder on the baseball team who had two catches last season that made the top plays on SportsCenter, it's a chance to play football again.

It was former Lexington Christian teammate West who encouraged Witt to come back to football, which he hasn't played since December 2009.

"Ten, 20 years from now, I didn't want to look back and say, 'What if?'" Witt said. "I've always loved football. I've always loved baseball as well. I knew my time was almost done here at Kentucky and I wanted to make sure before I left that I gave it a shot."

Witt brings knowledge to the position as a former quarterback running the same system with the state champion Eagles. He also attended several of Brown's camps. As a senior, Witt passed for 2,112 yards and 31 touchdowns. He also ran for 531 yards and seven scores.

Witt, who has the speed but is still getting used to the physical aspect of football, said he's excited to see what the other receivers can do. He'd love to be the guy passing to this group of wideouts.

"A lot of people don't realize how many good receivers we have," he said. "We've got a lot of really good receivers and I think we're going to surprise a few people."

After all, they've already surprised some of their offensive linemen.

Is QB decision coming?

After Tuesday's practice, Coach Mark Stoops was asked whether there was a timeline in place to decide on a starting quarterback.

"We're working toward it," he said. "Everybody is all anxious to (hear about) it. ... But yeah, we've collected all this data and we've got an idea, sure, just like we do at all of our positions."

The head coach specifically was asked whether running quarterback Jalen Whitlow would still have a place in the offense in the event he doesn't earn the starting job.

"There's a place for him whether he won the job or not to play him in a game (there) because of the dimension he gives you," Stoops said, noting that Whitlow ran for a 50-yard touchdown in practice that day.


Season Opener

Aug. 31: vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 7 p.m.

Home opener

Sept. 7: vs. Miami (Ohio), noon

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

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