Nebraska transfer Heard gives Kentucky backfield a jolt of excitement

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 1, 2014 

If Braylon Heard attacks defenses the way he attacked his time away from the football field, Kentucky's offense may have found itself an important playmaker.

After the junior running back transferred from Nebraska last year, he met with the UK coaches.

They discussed his strengths and weaknesses, what they saw on film that he needed to improve. They talked about changing his body, improving his flexibility, perfecting his pass protection.

He took mental note of every criticism, every observation, every suggestion.

And then the four-star recruit out of UK Coach Mark Stoops' Cardinal Mooney High School in Ohio went to work.

"A lot of times, you get kids and you tell them a lot of things that you think are holding them back and you want them to improve on it and they fight you," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "He's a kid who hears you, is aware of it."

Heard probably spent more time this off-season thinking about his hips than a patient in the hospital getting a hip replacement.

At the suggestion of his coaches, he pondered how his hips move, how they shift, how they've kept him from becoming the best running back he can be.

It was something Scott and offensive coordinator Neal Brown noticed right away on Heard's game tapes at Nebraska, where he rushed 52 times for 348 yards and three touchdowns as a backup.

"At Nebraska, I thought his hips were a little stiff," Brown told the Herald-Leader. "I thought he did a really good job — once he got out in the pack, he could really run. He's fast, really fast — but he had a hard time doing a quick change of direction."

Heard spent hours in the weight room with Corey Edmond, head strength and conditioning coach.

"I was so tight," Heard said in a recent interview. "I really focused on getting big. I kind of got away from the whole stretching thing, loosening up my hips and I really worked hard on it.

"You don't even realize it, that you can't maneuver a certain way if your hips are so tight. With your hips being tight, you can strain a lot of things, like I had groin problems and it was because my hips were so tight."

Strength coaches worked on Heard's abductor muscles specifically. They did a lot of stretching and mobility exercises. As they worked on those things, Heard slowly added lean muscle, going from 185 pounds at Nebraska to 198 pounds now.

"He really took the criticisms to heart," Erik Korem, UK's high-performance coordinator, told the Herald-Leader. "You have to give him a lot of credit. He saw this was an opportunity to get better. Not many guys have a chance to take a timeout in their career, so that was really good."

By the end of last season, the changes in Heard were hard to miss. And for some of UK's defenders, he was hard to catch.

"A lot of times when you redshirt, you kind of get lost," Brown said of Heard. "And I thought he took a very mature stance on his redshirt. I've been proud of how he attacked it."

Not afraid of competition

Heard wasn't in a weight-room bubble last season.

The 5-foot-11 running back felt helpless as friends and teammates struggled through a 2-10 season, winless in the Southeastern Conference.

"It's pretty frustrating, just watching, knowing I could've been out there helping the team out," Heard said.

He did his part on the scout team, making life difficult on the UK defense, making more than one UK defender take notice.

"Braylon Heard is really exciting," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said late in the season. "He's gonna be good. I'll be excited to see him play next year."

Going up against players like Williamson, Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith made him better, Heard said.

While on the scout team, he pondered what his first touchdown at Kentucky will feel like and sound like.

"I always daydream about making great plays on the field," he said. "I've thought about it before. I'm just ready for the team, for those guys to have a great season."

He hopes he can help make that happen. He will join a running back group that returns leading rusher Jojo Kemp (100 runs for 482 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman).

But with the graduation of Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George and the transfer of Dyshawn Mobley, Heard will have an opportunity to make a difference right away.

"I'm hoping to be able to be a playmaker, create big plays," said Heard, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry his final season with Nebraska. "I feel like we didn't have a lot of big plays. I feel like I could help in that area."

His coaches do, too.

"We're excited about him," Brown said. "I really like what Braylon's about — extremely hard worker."

Heard, who has emulated Reggie Bush since he was a kid and considers himself "more a speed guy than a power guy," isn't afraid of a little competition for the top rushing job at Kentucky.

He knows the Cats have other options in Kemp and highly touted freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams among others.

"What I've learned throughout my years is that extra work can really put you ahead of some guys," he said. "It helps a lot."

Heard, 22, thrives on a little back and forth.

As the second youngest of seven siblings (three brothers and three sisters), competition was everywhere.

"It's always competitive in a house with that many people, whether it's food or video game controllers or anything," Heard said laughing.

Playing football with the older guys — including some members of UK tight ends coach Vince Marrow's family — helped shape Heard, who rushed for 1,973 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Cardinal Mooney. He also had two catches for scores and handled kickoffs and punts there.

"They never took it light on me, they'd always hit me and everything. I feel that's what got me better," he said of his siblings and their friends. "It made me a good football player, playing with all those older guys all the time. It was a lot of fun, good times."

He expects the good times to continue at Kentucky, which now feels like family, like home.

It wasn't just his body changing in this redshirt season. He saw minds and attitudes all around him changing, too.

"We have a great group of guys," Heard said. "We can be as good as we want to be."

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

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