Before taking the field against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Dorian Baker looked to the sky.
“I just went out there and said a little prayer,” Kentucky’s junior wide receiver said.
One of the Cats’ top playmakers on offense the last two seasons has been a no-show this season thanks to some untimely hamstring issues.
And even though Baker didn’t have a catch on Saturday, he was happy to get the overall team victory and the small personal victory of not feeling that familiar ache in his hamstring afterward.
He’d tried to go before, like against New Mexico State three weeks ago, only to feel the strain and pain again.
“I was kind of upset about that,” he told reporters on Tuesday as UK got back to practice again during its bye week.
Baker has had many a setback this fall. The hamstring saga started in the middle of June, with what he described as “kind of a tweak” that took about a week to heal.
“Knowing those hamstrings, they kind of linger around,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be anything like this.”
The “like this” included some pain after the practice on Fan Day that got worse when he tried to play through it. He tried to come back too quickly in fall camp and then in the second game at Florida, where he saw a few snaps, and then again against the Aggies.
“I’d messed it up more and it kind of set me back more than what I thought it would,” said Baker, who led UK in catches last season (55) and receiving touchdowns (three) to go with his 608 total yards. “I just trusted the process and now I’m back and ready to contribute the second half of the season,” he said.
Baker admitted he was a little tentative at first on Saturday, but is now starting to look and feel better.
“He competed and he got after it and he was physical,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Baker shaking off the rust. “I really saw some good things out there today, too. He looks like he’s back full speed. And he ended up getting 30-plus reps, which was good for his first time back. So that was great.”
Short on outside linebackers
Mark Stoops wasn’t real specific about the players, their injuries or how much time they’ll miss, but UK was forced to play outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen nearly every snap on Saturday against Vanderbilt.
Those sophomores have had their own share of aches and pains, too.
Stoops did confirm that linebacker Kobie Walker is out “for some time” and De’Niro Laster is “out right now, too.” Neither played on Saturday.
That leaves the UK defense scrambling to fill out a position where it already was short on bodies this season.
The coaches are hopeful that defensive end Alvonte Bell can slide over into that hybrid role for the short-term and Kengera Daniel, who had a key stop on fourth-and-one subbing for an injured Ware, will be brought along.
Daniel has played at both the defensive end and outside linebacker spots and is flexible enough to play both in the interim, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said on Saturday.
A wrist issue for Johnson?
The defensive injuries weren’t the only ones Stoops didn’t discuss much. A day before, on his call-in show, the head coach confided that starting quarterback Stephen Johnson had been battling a wrist injury.
Perhaps that might have contributed to Johnson’s struggles in the passing game against Vanderbilt when the junior college transfer completed just 10 of 24 pass attempts for 49 yards with no pass longer than 15 yards.
When asked about the injury on Tuesday, Stoops said: “I really don’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk — it’s not an issue. He’s got a little banged up. Everybody is banged up and bruised. Nobody here is looking for that excuse, and certainly not Stephen.”
For his part, Johnson said he actually hurt his throwing wrist at Florida, but said it’s feeling better now after treatment.
Coaches said the quarterback was able to throw the ball well in practice on Tuesday.
‘Two other guys were rolling’
Fans who were worried that star running back Boom Williams would spend the next few weeks in player purgatory after his costly fumble on Saturday that Vanderbilt scooped and scored on, his position coach said don’t fret.
Williams didn’t get back in the game on Saturday as punishment for his first lost fumble of the season, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said, but rather because the other players (Benny Snell and Jojo Kemp) were running well.
In the days since then, Williams has been “unbelievable,” his position coach said.
“He had a great practice, unbelievable in the film room today,” Gran said of Williams, who leads UK with 540 yards and two touchdowns on 76 carries. “It had nothing to do with anything except those two other guys were rolling.
“They were going and we had a nice little rhythm. He’s going to be just fine. I’m excited as a matter of fact to see him in the next game.”
Mississippi State at Kentucky
Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)