Matt Roark felt like a shadow of his high school self.
When the Kentucky wide receiver was at North Cobb High School in Georgia, he was a star.
In his last two seasons, he excelled on offense and defense, playing multiple positions.
He scored 54 touchdowns in 18 starts and led his team to the playoffs in back-to-back years.
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That all started to feel like a lifetime ago to the current Matt Roark who felt the sting of passes bounce off his hands, who watched almost in slow motion as balls slipped through his fingers over and over again.
But the old feelings came rushing back Saturday when Roark had career highs of 13 catches and 116 yards in the Cats' loss to Mississippi State.
Roark came into the game with just 56 total yards on 12 catches. He had more catches Saturday than he did all of last season (12 for 170 yards).
So even though his team lost, the 6-foot-5 senior couldn't help but feel a little bit of joy.
"It felt like the old days, really," Roark said of the biggest game by any UK receiver this season. "Just being the guy with the ball in your hands a lot and being there for your teammates."
He felt a serious sense of relief.
"I feel like I proved to a lot of people that I could catch the ball and step up and make plays," he said.
Roark admits there have been times this season when he started to believe what he knew other people were saying about him.
He hung his head a little when he was relegated to the sideline after too many dropped passes.
But Roark credited the coaches with not letting him get too down, especially receivers coach Tee Martin, who was Roark's quarterbacks coach in his senior season at North Cobb.
"He was just getting on me, like never stopping," Roark said of Martin. "Some coaches would just be like, 'This guy's done. We're just going to focus on the young guys and develop them. He'll be gone next year, so forget about him.' But he just kept pushing me and pushing me."
After the Central Michigan game, when Roark dropped a ball in the end zone, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders put his arm around the senior.
"Keep working," Sanders said he told Roark. "You're a good player. You're in a funk right now. We're going to need you before the season is over.'
"To his credit, he didn't get down. He didn't give up."
He lost his starting spot but didn't give up, his coaches said.
Even as Roark slipped down the receiver depth chart, he still had his duties on special teams. He is a part of every special teams unit for UK, which is rare for a receiver.
So even when Roark was struggling at his preferred position, he didn't stop working.
He "went about his business the way he normally does, with full-speed effort," Coach Joker Phillips said. "He prepared himself doing special teams. Then he got the opportunity to go back in the game as a wide receiver and made a few plays for us."
Sanders saw the same effort from Roark on offense.
"He kept running routes, trying to get open," Sanders said. "Sometimes guys get in a funk and they run routes, but they don't really want to get open because they hope you don't throw it to them. ... That's not been Matt and I've been really proud of the way he's responded."
Kentucky (3-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) needs all of the receiver help it can get as the season winds down. To make it to a sixth straight bowl, the Cats must win three of their final four games, starting with Saturday's game against Mississippi (2-6, 0-5).
Still battling an ankle injury from the loss to Mississippi State, quarterback Morgan Newton was "very limited" in practice, so Maxwell Smith got all of the repetitions with the first team Tuesday, Phillips said.
He added that Smith performed well.
"One thing we've had issues with is getting the signals, getting up to the line, I thought he did a lot better at that today," the coach said.
Neither Smith nor Newton will be available to the media during this week's quarterback competition.
■ Running back CoShik Williams (foot) and tackle Donte Rumph (knee) did not practice Tuesday, but are expected to practice Wednesday.