There were a lot of similarities between Kayaune Ross’ last game as a University of Kentucky football recruit and his first game as a Wildcat.
Ross — a sophomore wide receiver who spent the past two years at Phoenix (Ariz.) College — was on his official visit to Lexington for the weekend of UK’s season finale against Louisville last fall.
In that game, the Cats jumped out to a 21-0 lead. And then they imploded, losing 38-24 after getting outscored 31-0 in the second half.
“I felt the energy,” Ross said of the way that day started. “I felt myself as a part of the team.”
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Ross was part of the team Saturday night against Southern Miss, and he made his presence felt early.
The 6-foot-6 newcomer — nicknamed “Godzilla” by wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas — found the end zone on his first offensive play as a Wildcat, catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Drew Barker to put UK up 21-7 toward the end of the first quarter.
“At the moment, it felt great,” he said. “We were up. We had energy going. My first college catch, a touchdown. It was great. But (you) move on to the next play.”
Ross, who also played on special teams, lamented the way his UK debut ended. The Cats, leading 35-10 late in the first half, gave up 34 unanswered points, were outscored 27-0 in the second half and lost 44-35.
“Came out dead,” he said of the second half. “That’s what it felt like. It felt like our energy was low. … It just hurts, knowing that I know what kind of team we have and what type of guys we have.”
There were indeed some bright spots from UK’s newcomers in this disheartening loss. Most of them came in the first half.
Tavin Richardson got the start at one of the wide receiver spots after sitting out his first year in Lexington as a redshirt. He started in place of junior Dorian Baker, who missed Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury, and he made the most of his opportunity.
Barker hit Richardson for a 41-yard gain on the first play of UK’s second series, resulting in the Cats’ first first down of the season. Barker and Richardson hooked up for a 33-yard gain later in the quarter, and that play helped set up Ross’ touchdown to give UK an early 21-7 advantage.
“There was some butterflies, a little bit,” said Richardson, who was told at the beginning of the week that he’d get the start. “The coaches kept preaching to me that it was just like practice and to go out and have fun.
“It felt really good to come out and help my team, making plays. The outcome wasn’t what I wish it was, but we just have to come back Monday, stay together and get ready for Florida.”
Richardson’s 74 receiving yards were the second-most on the team Saturday.
Fellow redshirt freshman wide receiver Jabari Greenwood also lined up for some offensive plays, though he was not targeted in his college debut. True freshmen Justin Rigg and Benny Snell played on special teams, and Snell was in the offensive backfield for one play in the second quarter. Tight end Greg Hart, who sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska, was on the field several times on offense and special teams.
Courtney Love — another Nebraska transfer who sat out last season — got the start, as expected, at middle linebacker. He finished with nine tackles (six solos) and a quarterback hurry.
Sophomore linebacker Kobie Walker saw his first action as a Wildcat after missing his first year in Lexington with an injury and being ruled academically ineligible for what should have been his redshirt freshman season last fall. Walker lined up all over the field Saturday, regularly dropping back in pass coverage and finishing with 10 tackles, second-most on the team.
Junior defensive end Alvonte Bell, who originally committed to Joker Phillips for the class of 2013, was forced to go to junior college and then ended up in UK’s class of 2015, had four tackles in his Wildcats debut. Bell sat out last season as a redshirt.
Former Warren East standout Eli Brown made one tackle in his first college game, playing sparingly on defense but getting several opportunities on special teams.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Walker, true freshman Jordan Griffin and Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster were all spotted on special teams.
Also playing on special teams — and recording one tackle — was true freshman linebacker Kash Daniel, the former Painstville High standout and reigning Mr. Football in the state of Kentucky.
Daniel, who sported face paint for his college debut, was exuberant on the field before the game.
“It felt good,” he said. “Finally getting your feet wet. I was just out there doing what I can on special teams, and it felt good to get it on a couple of plays.
“I’m just really excited to be here. Really excited for the opportunity. A lot of guys would kill for this opportunity, and I’m just blessed to be here.”
As for the stunning second-half collapse, Daniel was already looking ahead.
“Back to work,” he said. “Don’t dwell on it. Get back in the film room and get ready for Florida.”