UK Football

Transfer’s toughness earns him starting spot for Kentucky

Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson (6) nearly pulled in an interception over Eastern Michigan wide receiver Sergio Bailey II (2) during UK’s victory in September.
Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson (6) nearly pulled in an interception over Eastern Michigan wide receiver Sergio Bailey II (2) during UK’s victory in September.

Sometimes it takes a little time to dust off the rust.

That’s been the case for Kentucky junior-college cornerback Lonnie Johnson, who sat out the entire 2016 season to focus on academics.

“That was probably the hardest part right there,” he said of the time he spent sidelined at Garden City Community College in Kansas.

“The academics part wasn’t that hard once I got into the flow of it. It was me not playing, and watching people play, and I’m in the crowd like, ‘Dang, he should’ve made that play. I could’ve (done) that.’”

The transition at UK wasn’t as simple as the 6-foot-3, 206-pound defensive back had hoped. After the first game of the season and his first game back in more than a year, Johnson’s coaches said he had “a ways to go.

“I’m hard on Lonnie because he’s got a lot of talent,” Coach Mark Stoops said in early September. “We just gotta stay on him because he has the ability to be a very good football player. We’ve got to get some bad habits out of him and we’re gonna keep on staying on him, lean on him.”

That strategy appears to have worked as Johnson most likely will make his first career start Saturday versus Ole Miss.

It was a starting spot he’d hoped to earn sooner, but he’s excited for the opportunity now.

“Nothing comes easy,” said Johnson, who has 22 tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and three pass breakups this season.

“I just worked for it and got better as the season went on. I told you in the beginning I’m going to compete, coming off the bench like I was a starter. That’s what I’ve been doing all season and trying to make plays. The coaches took notice of that.”

Lonnie Johnson sat out last season at his junior college before transferring to Kentucky. Pablo Alcala

Johnson, who also has blocked two kicks, had a career-best six tackles in the Cats’ win over Missouri. He recorded three tackles and had his first career sack last weekend against Tennessee.

Those big plays gave him the right to start ahead of 32-game starter Chris Westry, Stoops said Monday.

“He’s doing some good things; he really is,” Stoops said of Johnson. “We don’t just say that when we talk about competition and earning your way. That’s not lip service.”

There was not some magical light bulb moment for the player from Gary, Ind. He just began to get more and more comfortable being back on the field doing what he loved.

“I actually just feel different out there at practice,” he said. “Last game I was just comfortable. Even some of my teammates said, ‘You look so comfortable out there.’ I was like ‘I am.’ Just got into the swing of things and took advantage of it.”

He has started to gain confidence with each opportunity.

“He’s been able to get better and better the more he plays,” secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said of Johnson. “So it’s not one specific thing I saw but it’s just a collective deal.

“He’s a physical, athletic player who likes to compete and he’s continued to step up that bar. We like what we see.”

His physical play, including a jarring sack against the Volunteers last Saturday, was the first for a Kentucky corner this season.

Johnson’s grit and desire to work hard have impressed Stoops.

“Lonnie has a toughness about him that I really like,” the head coach said. “He brings an edge and an attitude, and it’s a difficult spot.

“We’ll be challenged this week, that’s for sure, with these wideouts and the way Ole Miss plays offensively. It’s going to be a real challenge. But I just like what he brings and he’s getting better.”

The Rebels boast the nation’s No. 8 passing offense, averaging 338.1 yards per game, throwing it nearly 58 percent of the time.

It’s the kind of game that Johnson has thought about since junior college, where he said he developed an edge of sorts.

A season away from the game can do that.

“Not being able to do some of the things I’ve wanted to do in junior college” drove me, the cornerback said. “Just grinding for real, just trying to get better, just go out there and make more plays for this team.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Next game

Mississippi at Kentucky

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)

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