Mark Story: The one UK football player even U of L fans should root for

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 23, 2014 

Running back Josh Clemons was the top rusher in UK's spring game in April. The junior injured his knee midway through the 2011 season and hasn't played a regular-season game since.

The first act of Josh Clemons' Kentucky Wildcats football career opened in 2011 with trumpets blaring. On his fourth carry as a UK player, Clemons scored a game-deciding touchdown.

In his second contest, the running back electrified Commonwealth Stadium with an 87-yard jaunt for a go-ahead TD.

Six games into his true freshman season, Clemons was Kentucky's leading rusher and most promising offensive threat.

Then, the Fayetteville, Ga., product hit a streak of misfortune that makes Job look like Mr. Lucky.

A torn meniscus in his right knee suffered in Columbia, S.C., ended Clemons' freshman season.

Swelling in his surgically repaired knee led to another operation and kept Clemons out for the 2012 season.

A ruptured Achilles tendon suffered while warming up for an offseason workout cost Clemons all of 2013.

Yet after all that trial and tribulation, all the rehabilitation and worry, Clemons need only stay healthy through this week's practices to at last make a return. If the junior running back plays in Kentucky's season opener against Tennessee-Martin, he will have returned to an official college football game after an absence of 1,057 days.

"It's been a long, long time since I've actually felt the feeling of being in the actual game," Clemons said. "I'm looking forward to getting that again."

Clemons would not be human if, during his long fight to get back on the field, his spirits didn't droop at times.

"We would have to come to practice, he would just sit back and look sad," said Kentucky defensive end Bud Dupree, Clemons' friend and fellow Georgian.

Kentucky fullback D.J. Warren, another Clemons buddy, says he tried to be attuned to his friend's mood.

"Josh, he's a really funny guy. He talks a lot," Warren said. "But when I would see Josh and he wasn't talking much, that's how I knew something was wrong. That's usually when I tried to talk to him and lift him up."

Making Clemons' long journey to get back to the Kentucky backfield even more trying is that it has been filled with fits and starts.

After his initial knee injury, he practiced during the 2012 preseason only to have the swelling in his knee that required further surgery.

Needing to impress the new coaching staff of Mark Stoops in 2013 spring practice, Clemons ran for 56 yards and caught two passes in the Blue-White Game — only to rupture his Achilles' tendon months later.

During this time, Clemons says he especially leaned on his parents, Charlie and Wanda Clemons. A longtime NFL linebacker, Charlie Clemons successfully resumed his pro career after a ruptured tendon.

"My parents at home were a good inspiration to me," Josh Clemons said. "They always kept me lifted, encouraging words and things like that."

By the 2014 Blue-White Game, Clemons was again on the comeback trail. Showing hints of his old form, he finished as the spring game's leading rusher, 93 yards, and scored a TD.

"He did a great job staying healthy through spring ball and the offseason," UK running backs coach Chad Scott said Friday. "So our goal for (fall) camp was to get him to the season."

Running back is thought to be the most talented position on Kentucky's offensive roster. Jojo Kemp showed promise last season as a true freshman. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard is highly regarded. Stoops said Friday that four-star signees Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams will play this season.

Yet, if healthy, Clemons, a compact 5-foot-10, 223-pound bundle of muscle, should have something unique to offer. On Media Day, Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown all but lit up envisioning Clemons breaking into secondaries against smaller defenders.

Said Scott: "In one of our last practices, in a scrimmage situation, we saw that. (Clemons) got to the second level and did what we thought he would do. He's a punisher, he's a bruiser."

To Clemons, it must seem like a million years since he scored the touchdown against Western Kentucky in 2011's season opener. It must feel like it was in the Pre-Cambrian era when he broke that tackle, bounced it outside and went 87 yards to the house against Central Michigan the following week.

Now — if he can just get through practice healthy this week — Clemons will finally get a chance to write a second act to his UK story.

"I'm pretty excited," he said Friday, grinning.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service