UK Football

After battling through another setback, Kentucky safety excited to be back on field

Kentucky safety Darius West went through drills during football practice on the Tim Couch practice fields in 2015. West missed last season with a knee injury.
Kentucky safety Darius West went through drills during football practice on the Tim Couch practice fields in 2015. West missed last season with a knee injury. Herald-Leader

Every player who was on the field for practice that Friday remembers seeing Darius West go down.

They all remember hearing it.

It was awful, was all Kentucky teammate Mike Edwards said of West’s patellar tendon injury on Aug. 12 that cost the safety all of last season.

Edwards shakes his head and looks away when asked about it.

West was on the verge of locking up the starting safety spot opposite Edwards. The Lima, Ohio, native thought he’d finally put injuries behind him.

“It was tough,” said West, who hadn’t spoken to the media since the injury until Thursday. “It was really tough.”

It wasn’t just difficult for West, who also missed the 2014 season with a lower leg injury after breaking his right tibia twice in high school.

“To see him go through that was heartbreaking for me, I can’t even imagine what it was like for him,” Edwards said.

After surgery, West started the brutal rehab process, going to the training room 2-3 times a day, often early in the morning and staying late to build up strength in his leg.

Teammates would stop to check on him and remind him better days were ahead. West started to believe them once he got some strength back.

Practicing some with Kentucky again while it prepped for the TaxSlayer Bowl in December made West start to believe it, too.

Those promised better days seem to have arrived for the 6-foot, 210-pound safety, who came to Kentucky as a four-star recruit.

“I'm excited about him because we all know he was going to be a player last year,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said of West at the start of spring practice. “He would have played a bunch or maybe won the job. He was right in there battling for the starting position when he got hurt.”

On Thursday, after Kentucky’s fifth full day of spring practice, West seemed cautiously optimistic. He won’t feel the knee is 100 percent until he’s back playing on the Commonwealth Stadium turf in the first scrimmage this weekend.

Kentucky coaches said West has shown some rust while noting he is making improvements daily.

“It’s been a year since he’s played football, really, so that takes a minute,” new defensive coordinator Matt House.

West isn’t afraid of hard work, his position coach said. He’s already regained the No. 1 spot and is showing signs of being a leader.

“He wants to get better,” defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said of West, who played in 10 games in 2015 and was a star on special teams. He finished with 17 tackles, including seven against Charlotte near the end of the season.

“He’s learning the game again, kind of recycling, getting his mind refreshed. I just see a guy who’s challenging himself, pushing himself hard to be better every day.”

One of the most difficult adjustments after time off is “getting that timing, getting that clock back, getting the urgency back on the field,” Clinkscale said.

The good news is West hasn’t shown any apprehension or worry about hurting himself again. He’s been all smiles.

That tells his coaches and teammates that it’s just a matter of time before he’ll be making plays in Kentucky’s secondary.

He doesn’t just help the defensive backs, Edwards said.

“It’s the whole team,” Edwards said. “He brings a whole different mentality, just passionate. Him being out here just makes the whole team better, and I like seeing him happy and out here again.”

‘Tip of the iceberg’

Kentucky’s new defensive coordinator was reluctant to discuss player labels like first and second team going into the Cats’ first closed scrimmage on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

“We’re on the tip of the iceberg,” House said after the fifth practice. “So right now it’s all about competition for anybody. And certainly (we) don’t want to start limiting down the pool this early. You want to really build it and expand it.”

The spring is about more than depth charts, House said.

“I really do think you need a couple scrimmages to really evaluate that,” House said on Thursday when asked about emerging players. “There’s guys who have flashed, certainly, but again, playing the game when the coaches are off the field is a lot different than an organized team period.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader