There's been a lot to learn on the football field this season for Kentucky freshmen Dorian Baker and Stanley "Boom" Williams.
But maybe their most important lessons have come off the field.
"I've learned a lot, that you have to be real careful with your decisions and the things that you do knowing that you're a valuable player to your team," Williams said after Kentucky's 48-14 victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday.
Williams, Baker, and fellow freshmen Drew Barker and Tymere Dubose were suspended for an air-gun incident that shut down part of campus for several hours.
Never miss a local story.
Baker, a wideout, and Williams, a running back, missed the big win over South Carolina. (Barker and Dubose are likely to be redshirted.)
Both said they wanted to play well Saturday and start to make amends for their mistake.
"I just wanted to come out and play hard. I owed it to the team, the fans and the coaches, so I just wanted to come out and show those guys that I do want to be a part of the team, so that's what I did," said Williams, who opened the game with a 75-yard kickoff return, the longest for Kentucky since 2009.
The freshman also contributed a 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter on his way to 179 all-purpose yards for the game.
"I really think this is kind of a culmination of the way he's practiced," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of Williams. "He has gotten better. He is maturing before our eyes. He's starting to take practice more serious. He's paying attention to detail more."
Baker had three catches for 38 yards in the win.
"What we did was — as far as us wanting to come back and make a big impact, we kind of left that in the past," Baker said. "We wanted to come back and show everybody we're here now, and we're not leaving."
Williams said all players involved in the incident, and later charged with disorderly conduct, were disappointed in themselves and each other.
"All of us, poor decision-making," Williams said. "We know that we're better than that, and we don't make decisions like that. All of us have learned from those decisions."
Defensive TD spree
It used to be Kentucky couldn't even intercept a single pass. Now the Cats are not only hauling in interceptions, they're also scoring points off of them.
On Saturday, both Josh Forrest and Marcus McWilson had interceptions for touchdowns. Kentucky now has four defensive touchdowns this season, its most since 2008.
"That's nice to see us have the ability to make big plays on both sides of the ball and in special teams," Stoops said, noting that three of the defensive TDs have come at key times in the past two games.
Getting those interceptions, 11 through six games for UK, into the end zone was a big emphasis this week, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
"We had a couple last week that I think could've gotten to the end zone if we'd gotten to the near sideline, if the right guys would've gotten the blocks," Eliot said. "We emphasized it last week, and this week we were able to get the interception and execute."
Kentucky has always worked on what to do with the pick once you get it, but Eliot said it was nice to have game film to work with to show where players could fix their problems before this game.
Forrest's pick came after Matt Elam got a head — not a hand — on the ball at the line of scrimmage.
The freshman defensive tackle said the offensive line was holding his hands down, so he took matters into his own head.
"I kind of jumped up and it hit my helmet," Elam said. "I was like, 'All right, you're not just going to hold me down, I'm going to get to this ball.' I just jumped up and it hit my helmet."
It also was nice to have Elam in the game, Forrest said, as he was running the go-ahead points back for the score.
Elam "turned around and started blocking, so that took up one or two people, so it all worked out," Forrest said.
Stoops: 'I love him'
On a day to celebrate military heroes and first responders at Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops had a poignant moment with a Marine with whom the football program has developed a strong bond.
Between the third and fourth quarters, when fans do the "Blue! White!" cheer, special military guests joined former UK star Jared Lorenzen on the field for a "USA!" chant instead.
There was former Kentucky quarterback Freddie Maggard, a Kentucky National Guard community liaison; his wife, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jennifer Maggard; Sgt. Dallas Robinson; and Cpl. Matthew Bradford.
After the cheers filled Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops went over to embrace Bradford, a blind, double-amputee Marine who has become part of the Cats' football family.
"I didn't plan it," Stoops said of the moment. "I just saw him over there. We have a good relationship. So I just wanted to go say hi to him."
Always the jokester, Stoops couldn't help but mess with Bradford.
"I told him he was milking it. He was trying to get attention," Stoops smiled. "No, we have a good relationship. I love him and I have a ton of respect for him."
Getting Phillips reps
Backup quarterback Reese Phillips got into the game late — on his birthday, no less — in relief of Towles.
It wasn't completely smooth sailing for the freshman, who had a new center snapping the ball to him.
"He started the first snap and the ball snapped at his feet," Stoops said. "That didn't get him off to a good start. He was a little flustered. We've just got to get him in there and get him going."
Neal Brown said it was good to get Phillips some reps, appearing in just his second game of the season. But UK had to balance that with running up the score on ULM, too.
"It's important," Brown said of getting Phillips in the game. "He's going to have to go play for us at some point. We've got confidence in him, no question."
Because Towles is such a young player and needs all the reps he can get, Phillips hasn't gotten as many reps as Brown would have liked, but he's done well with those.
"I thought he's done a really good job of preparing, and I felt like he's been prepared to play every week," Brown said.