The stadium at Southern Miss doesn’t quite hold the history of the Rose Bowl or the 100,000-plus screaming fans of places like Michigan Stadium or Beaver Stadium.
But as his feet met the green and gold turf at M.M. Roberts Stadium on the first Saturday of September, Darius West was as happy as any football to ever play at any of those places.
“When we first got to the stadium, I walked on the field by myself and was like, ‘Man, it’s finally here,’” the Kentucky safety beamed nearly a month later. “That was my moment honestly.”
That was the moment the junior knew that the surgeries and the rehab and the awful things his body had been through in the past few years were behind him finally.
West’s journey back to the playing field was a rocky one. The 6-foot, 210-pound junior missed all of last season with a ruptured patellar tendon. His lone healthy season at UK was as a redshirt freshman in 2015 when he had 17 tackles in 10 games.
He’s nearly doubled that tackles number in his first four games back. West leads the Cats and is 12th in the Southeastern Conference in tackles with 32, including 1.5 for loss. The junior grabbed his first career interception last week against Florida.
It was that moment at Southern Miss, though, when he started to believe his hardships, which have included four major injuries since his junior year of high school, were behind him.
Now West can tackle bigger things, like becoming a vocal leader for the defense.
“Making plays on the field gives me more confidence to be that leader I should be,” said West, who had six tackles and forced a fumble which teammate Denzil Ware turned into a touchdown in his welcome-back game at Southern Miss.
“I’m the type of person, I always like to lead by example, by actions, so that’s something I’ve got to keep working on. So my coaches keep pushing me on that.”
West “knocked off the cobwebs awful fast and made some big plays” off the field, defensive coordinator Matt House said.
That’s why he knew West would be ready for his new challenge of leading a secondary that will take on an aggressive passing attack by Eastern Michigan on Saturday at Kroger Field. The Eagles (2-1) are No 40 nationally in passing offense, averaging 277.3 yards a game.
“It’s time for him to vocally step up a little bit because he is making plays,” House added of West.
The former four-star safety at Lima Central Catholic is trying to speak up more when the secondary studies film. He’s trying to get better at communicating in whatever ways necessary on the field, too.
When West does something, his fellow defensive backs tend to follow him, secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said.
“Darius has a presence about him,” Clinkscale said. “Sometimes if he just communicates what we want him to communicate to the team, they’ll follow. He’s one of those guys they’ll follow. Any leader has to be able to communicate, and that’s what coach wants him to do.”
It’s nothing that West isn’t doing now.
Coaches just want to see more of it now that he’s gotten back into the rhythm and flow of the game after so much time away.
“I said all summer I thought Darius had a great summer, great camp,” Clinkscale continued. “He’s improved from even before the injury. He’s very fast, athletic. He’s a good communicator. I just want to continue to see him grow on the field.”
▪ After a head injury sidelined him against Florida and the early part of this week, Kentucky cornerback Derrick Baity has been cleared to play on Saturday, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said in his final meeting with the media on Thursday night.
Eastern Michigan at Kentucky
4 p.m. (SEC)