J.D. Harmon knows the topography of Mark Stoops’ face well.
Every bulging vein, every wrinkle around the corners of the coach’s piercing blue eyes.
Dozens of times the Kentucky coach has been nearly nose to nose with the senior defensive back, having an animated discussion about a play.
It was that way last week at Tennessee after Vols quarterback Josh Dobbs connected with Josh Malone on a flea flicker that extended the Volunteers’ lead.
Harmon miscalculated, and his coach let him have it. Again.
“I’m going to coach him hard until the last day he’s here,” Stoops said. “You always want everybody to have that detail and play at a higher level. We’re never going to stop that.”
Harmon wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He cares about me,” said the defensive back from Paducah Tilghman, one of 14 players who will be honored Saturday on Senior Day at Commonwealth Stadium. “It’s an amazing thing; I’m very fortunate to have a coach who cares.”
The relationship between Stoops and Harmon always has been an interesting one. The senior said it was his fault they got off to a rocky start.
Harmon, who was recruited by the previous staff, had to sit out Stoops’ first season because of academic issues.
“The grade thing probably was the toughest thing because I kind of got away from myself,” Harmon recalled of sitting out in 2013. “Me having good grades is something I’ve always done. I kind of just went through a tough time there, just really kind of lost myself.”
In many ways, Stoops became Harmon’s GPS.
The new coach sat Harmon down in his office and said: “We don’t really know each other, but I want to get to know you,” Harmon recalled of the conversation. “’I see you have a grade problem.’
Stoops “could’ve said we’re not going to bring you back, but he said he wanted to give me a chance to work through this.”
Stoops told Harmon he was going to have to earn his scholarship back.
“I’m very thankful that he didn’t just hand me a scholarship,” Harmon said. “He made me work for it. It’s something I respect so much. A lot of times, when you’re handed things in life, you get complacent. That’s one of the things he didn’t want to happen.
“He made me earn my scholarship. I practiced with the practice squad. ... Then I’d go practice with starting defense. Him making me work for it was probably one of the best things he’s done.”
Their relationship was tested again in 2014 when Stoops singled out Harmon for a costly special teams mistake. Stoops said Harmon “made the decision not to help us by doing his own thing.”
All of that was an important part of his development, said Harmon, who has played in 45 games with three starts, racking up 115 tackles, including three for loss. He also has seven interceptions and has forced three fumbles.
“A lot of people were upset that he called out a player, but they don’t understand my connection with Coach Stoops,” Harmon said.
Stoops’ goal was to challenge Harmon to get better, to be a smarter player and a better teammate.
Harmon said the criticism never bothered him.
“We’ve been close ever since,” he smiled. “Took the coaching, went back to work.”
That desire to work hard and be conscientious has made Harmon an asset in the defensive backs room, where there is a lot of young talent, secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said.
“He’s a mature young man,” Clinkscale said of Harmon, whose versatility has allowed him to play nearly every spot in the UK secondary during his career. “He brings that presence of straight get to business. He likes to learn new things, which helps entice the younger players to be involved more, too.”
All of these moments have made Harmon a better leaderhis coaches and teammates said.
The lesson is simple, the senior said.
“Coach (Stoops) showed me you have to work for everything,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we are here in this season: We’re working for everything.”
Harmon just hopes “everything” includes a bowl game for the first time since 2010. The Cats can secure that with a victory over winless Austin Peay on Saturday.