When the football season started poorly, Kentucky’s seniors went to work.
And the younger players around them noticed.
“If we wanted a different result, we needed to do some different things,” senior wide receiver Ryan Timmons said recently.
So when the Cats’ season started with a stunning loss at home to Southern Miss and a blowout loss at Florida, Timmons got on his phone and texted the other wide receivers that he was heading to the practice facility to watch extra film.
“I’ll text them whenever I’m coming here, I’ll encourage them to come,” Timmons said. “Letting them know I’m in here working and if they see me doing that, hopefully they’ll come, too.”
That’s been the calling card of this senior class, a core group of eight players, almost all who have been at UK through some bleak times.
Players like Timmons and defensive backs Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson, J.D. Harmon and center Jon Toth aren’t especially vocal by nature, but they have tried to lead by example.
That’s been especially important this season for Kentucky, which claims to have one of the youngest rosters in the country. The Cats have 13 first-time starters.
Those guys, we wouldn’t have been able to win some close games and some tough games without their leadership. I certainly appreciate the seniors we have even though they’re small in numbers.
It hasn’t always been easy to find leaders, but Coach Mark Stoops said he’s grateful for the UK senior class, which started the season with eight scholarship players.
“Those guys, we wouldn’t have been able to win some close games and some tough games without their leadership,” the coach said of the group, which also includes running back Jojo Kemp, offensive lineman Zach Myers and junior-college transfer Courtney Miggins, a defensive lineman.
“I certainly appreciate the seniors we have even though they’re small in numbers,” Stoops continued.
That small group had a big impact on and off the field as UK bounced back from its rough start to win five of its next six games.
So even though Kentucky is going into the Tennessee game coming off a last-second loss to Georgia on Saturday, Stoops knows the seniors will help get everyone re-focused.
“They’ve been around a long time and they’ve seen the ups and downs and they’re ready, they’re hungry,” junior middle linebacker Courtney Love said. “Their attitudes and work ethics have rubbed off on younger guys.”
And even though it’s mostly by chance, the senior class is spread around at different positions, which means they can directly affect the work being done in their position groups.
“We just lead our position, it’s all we can do, lead our position to the best of our ability and then go out there and play,” said McClain, a defensive back, who is tied for fourth on the team in tackles with 44, including two interceptions and two pass breakups.
McClain is joined in the secondary room by McWilson, who also has 44 tackles, including 2.5 for loss and an interception for a touchdown this season.
That pick came courtesy of the extra film work he put in and encourages his teammates to put in, McWilson said recently.
“He practices hard, he does everything to the best of his ability and when he made that play, it was big-time,” McClain said. “It showed hard work and a positive attitude pay off.”
That’s been the lasting impression this senior class, which will be honored next weekend against Austin Peay, hopes that it will leave on the program.
They’ve been around a long time and they’ve seen the ups and downs and they’re ready, they’re hungry. Their attitudes and work ethics have rubbed off on younger guys.
Courtney Love, UK linebacker, talking about the team’s seniors
“The seniors are looked at as the leaders of the specific rooms,” said Toth, the All-Southeastern Conference center, who has started in a team-best 44 straight games. “They can be the voices of wisdom in each room. That kind of comes with on-field experience as well.”
Seniors like Toth are calming forces when things are going badly for players outside of their position rooms, too, quarterback Stephen Johnson said.
“I might mess up a protection, but he’ll see it and he’ll change it,” the first-year signal caller said of his center. “So we’ll go back and watch that and I’ll see my mistake and see what he saw and different things that he had in his mind.”
So much of this senior class’s legacy won’t be about wins and losses, but about how it helped pick Kentucky up when it was struggling.
That’s something the group hopes it can do again in time for a UK victory at Tennessee for the first time since 1984.
The seniors went back to work.
“We’ve been here for a while and we’ve played a lot of ball here at UK, so we’ve experienced the ups and downs here in this program,” said Timmons, who has had his share of timely catches this season. “It goes to show how much we know, how much we’ve seen and witnessed so we can help out these young guys.”
Kentucky at Tennessee
Noon Saturday (SEC Network)