UK football: 2 Cats learn hard lessons from sidelines

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2014 

Sometimes lessons aren't just learned in classrooms or on the football field.

Sometimes the most important lessons come on the sidelines.

That's where Kentucky's J.D. Harmon and Rashad Cunningham were forced to spend their time last season because they didn't do what they needed to do in the classroom.

"It was a huge wake-up call for me," said Harmon, a former walk-on turned starter at cornerback. "I'd always been a guy who was usually on top of my academics and I let them slip."

He hated disappointing his teammates, and even worse, disappointing his family.

"When mom calls and uses your full name, you know you're in trouble," he said.

Cunningham, a long, tall wide receiver, and Harmon, a cornerback, both played positions where Kentucky lacked depth and struggled mightily.

They both could've been starters; instead, they both had to watch a 2-10 season unfold from the outside.

"It takes a toll, just knowing you could be out there making those plays, helping out your team in whatever way you can," Harmon said.

There was a feeling of helplessness.

"I had to be a great teammate, fan mostly, and be supportive of all my teammates like cheering them on," said Cunningham, a junior from Mobile, Ala.

Both players did what they could to make the players who actually were eligible play better.

"I didn't take a day off," Harmon said. "I felt like I could better myself in the offseason and I was going to help those guys out before the game."

Wide receivers like Javess Blue and Jeff Badet would ask Harmon to make life difficult on them during drills, to pull out all the stops to get them ready for some of the Southeastern Conference's best defenders.

While on the scout team, Harmon caught the eye of offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who saw the Paducah native making his receivers better.

"J.D. unfortunately is over there and he did it to himself, but I mean he's over there and he's (athletic), and you know, he played a lot of football last year and he's a guy from an athletic standpoint that will definitely help" next season, Brown said.

Watching the Cats' secondary struggle through the season, which included just three interceptions in 12 games (none from the corners), was difficult. UK's three picks tied for fewest in the nation.

Before becoming an academic casualty, Harmon was set to return as the Cats' interceptions leader from the season before with two, both against Missouri. He was tied for second on the team with pass breakups with four.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said Harmon is doing what he needs to do to "earn his way back" on the team.

"He's got a lot of ability," the head coach said of Harmon, who had 11 interceptions his senior season at Paducah Tilghman. "He's got the talent to be a good player, but he missed all those game reps ... last year and he's got to earn his way back."

By the end of the season, Cunningham could see the damage he'd done to his team up close.

Because of injury and already low numbers available to run an "Air Raid" offense, the junior wide receiver often had to come off the scout team to run with the first- and second-team offenses.

He was supposed to have a breakout season after a Blue-White Spring Game performance at this time last year that included eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown and had Brown calling him "the player of the game on offense."

Sitting out was a wake-up call for Cunningham, too.

"I kind of look back and reflect on last year and try not to take things for granted this year," he said.

"I dedicate myself to it much more, much more than I did before, on the field, off the field in the classroom, just every aspect of being a student athlete."

Harmon has lots of people looking over his shoulder. He meets regularly with cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley about academics.

"He's like a dad," Harmon said. "He's always on me. He stays on me. He texts me every day to make sure I'm going to class."

The coach doesn't even need to do that now, Harmon said.

From the sidelines, he's learned an important lesson.

"This gave me a chance to set my priorities straight," he said. "I was not focused on school throughout the season, was too focused on football. Now I take the initiative ... I want to finish the semester strong."

UK football loses defensive back commitment

Kentucky has one fewer football commitment for the class of 2015.

Georgia defensive back Montrell Custis announced Monday that he has backed out of his pledge to the Wildcats and is now committed to Alabama.

Custis is considered a four-star prospect and the No. 26 cornerback in the class of 2015 by 247Sports. He originally pledged to Kentucky last November, becoming the first commitment in the program’s 2015 class.

Alabama offered Custis in February, and he visited the Tuscaloosa campus one week later.

“I really want to give a special thanks to the whole UK coaching staff for giving me an opportunity to go to a great university like Kentucky,” Custis tweeted Monday. “But at the end of the day me and my family thought Alabama was a better fit for me. So I decommitted from UK and now I’m commit Alabama!”

Kentucky now has five commitments for the class of 2015.

-- BEN ROBERTS

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

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