UK signee Horton brings 'power element' to backfield

broberts@herald-leader.comFebruary 14, 2014 

Less than a week after he watched Florida State defeat Auburn for college football's national championship, it was time for Mikel Horton to move to Lexington.

That destination could have easily been Tallahassee.

The highly touted running back's recruitment came down to the Wildcats and the Seminoles. Horton — his first name is pronounced my-KELL — went with UK.

"Florida State was knocking on my door pretty hard after I committed to Kentucky," he said. "I wasn't changing my mind for any other school."

His commitment came last April, making Horton one of the first players to join one of UK's greatest recruiting classes ever.

He watched the Wildcats go 2-10 for the second consecutive season, and he watched the Seminoles win a national title and a Heisman Trophy.

And he never once regretted his decision.

"To be honest with you, I did not," he said on signing day. "When I watched the national championship game, I was happy for them, but I felt like we could do that, too. Thirty years from now, I want to be on a 30 for 30 on ESPN: Why is Kentucky undefeated and winning national championships in a row so many times, telling my life story. That's why I chose Kentucky."

Horton spoke of Coach Mark Stoops, calling him a "father figure" and one of the "most uplifting, responsible" people in his life. He also talked about the bond that he already feels with his fellow early enrollees and the other members of the 2014 class.

Instead of following in the footsteps of national champions at Florida State, Horton wants to build something with his friends at UK.

The native of West Chester, Ohio — just north of Cincinnati — brushed aside questions of whether a chance at immediate playing time had any impact on his decision. For now, he says he's watching players like Jojo Kemp and Braylon Heard, two running backs who have spent the last year in UK's system.

He'll learn from them this spring, but he'll also be trying to pass them on the depth chart.

Kemp led the Cats in rushing as a true freshman last year — going for 482 yards on 100 carries. Heard will be a junior next season after rushing for 452 yards in two seasons at Nebraska and sitting out 2013 as a transfer.

Pitt transfer Demitrious Davis and Josh Clemons, who missed all of last season with an injury, are also returnees at running back.

Much of the attention will be on the two freshmen: Stanley "Boom" Williams and Horton, both ranked among the top 20 running backs nationally in the Class of 2014.

Horton is the biggest of UK's backs — at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds — and that's a trait that might help him get on the field early.

Scout.com analyst Josh Helmholdt described Horton as a bruising back who punishes defenders as the game goes along. Helmholdt also said to look beyond Horton's size and consider his all-around talent.

"He's a better athlete than people give him credit for," he said. "He's a great receiver out of the backfield. I think people have this mind-set that he's just a between-the-tackles, bruising-type of a running back. He's much more dynamic than that.

"I think he can play early on because I expect him to be a good blocker at that position, which is always key for running backs playing early. ... And I think he can help out in the passing game. He's a very good receiver."

UK running backs coach Chad Scott said it's "huge" that Horton is already on campus, taking classes and preparing to go through spring practice.

Scott acknowledged the all-around assets that Horton brings to the Cats, but he seemed most excited about that "power element" that was missing from UK's backfield last season.

"We expect him to come in and bring a physical element to the running game," Scott said. "As the game goes on, everyone wears down. And when you have a kid who is as physical and as imposing as him, ready to get downhill as fast as he does, you don't want to tackle that big guy."

Told about the scouting report on Horton — that he gets better as he gets in the flow of the game, which means 20-plus carries — Scott said he's hoping one of his running backs emerges as a true No. 1 option who can get that kind of workload.

If that player isn't Horton, he'll still be running for that top spot. And Scott is excited at the thought.

"When you have competition, when you have someone behind you just as good — it keeps you on your toes," he said. "It makes you do the little things to continue to separate yourself. When you don't have that competition, it's pulling teeth to get those guys to do what they're supposed to do on a daily basis.

"I shouldn't have to get on those guys as much now."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216Twitter: @NextCatsBlog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com

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