One of the top recruits in UK’s 2018 class, DeAndre Square had clear orders from defensive coordinator Matt House for his first game on a college sideline.
“He just told me to stay behind him and follow him wherever he goes,” Square said. “And he would throw me in whenever he was ready to throw me in.”
The true freshman linebacker followed those orders to a T.
For the first few defensive series in the Cats’ 35-20 victory over Central Michigan on Saturday afternoon, Square didn’t make it onto the field. But there he was, standing right in House’s shadow, ready for his opportunity.
“He told me to follow him everywhere he went,” Square reiterated with a smile. “And I followed him every step he took.”
Midway through the second quarter, he got the call.
Square, who had already been in on some special teams plays, was sent into the game at the middle linebacker spot. He made tackles on each of his first two defensive snaps as a Wildcat.
“It was a good feeling,” he said, that smile still on his face.
Among UK’s newcomers this season, quarterback Terry Wilson was the one getting all of the hype heading into the Cats’ opener, but Square and others also stepped up and made some significant plays in their first action as college football players.
Offensive lineman E.J. Price, who transferred from Southern Cal last summer and sat out the 2017 season, went into the game at left tackle in the first quarter and immediately made an impact, jumping on a Benny Snell fumble to keep alive a drive that ultimately ended with A.J. Rose’s 55-yard touchdown run for the Cats’ first points of the season.
Recovering that fumble was the easy part. Holding onto it at the bottom of a violent scrum was another story.
“Man, it was rough,” Price said. “I mean, I had guys trying to poke my eye and rip it out of my hands. I had some support from my teammates, getting guys off me.”
Price and redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins split time at left tackle throughout the game, with Watkins getting the start in his college debut. True freshman offensive lineman Darian Kinnard also played Saturday.
UK’s punting game will be a strength this season, if Max Duffy’s debut was any indication.
The sophomore punter from Australia booted four punts for a total of 200 yards, and Central Michigan managed just one return yard on the day. Three of those punts went for 50-plus yards — with a long of 54 — and two of them landed inside the 20.
“Thought Max punted the ball very good,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said in one of the understatements of the evening.
Redshirt freshmen Tyrell Ajian, Yusuf Corker, Jamin Davis and Michael Nesbitt played on special teams in Saturday’s game, marking their first college action. Fellow redshirt freshman Austin Dotson, a former Belfry standout, got some time on the offensive line, and true freshmen Allen Dailey and Chris Oats played on special teams.
Square was the 2018 recruit who saw the most playing time, however. It was not a surprise after UK’s coaches had positive things to say about him throughout fall camp.
The Cats’ defensive star, Josh Allen, echoed those sentiments after Saturday’s victory.
“He’s just gritty. He wants it,” Allen said. “What he lacks in size, he makes up in composure and athleticism and just getting to the ball. He knows what he has to do, and he’s doing it.
“He prepared for it. He came in early, and he was just mentally ready to play. That’s what I like about him. You don’t see that in a lot of guys. … What he showed today, that wowed me. And I want to see how he does in later games.”
True freshmen Jamari Brown, Kenneth Horsey, Nick Lewis, Jerquavion Mahone and Bryce Oliver were all on the sidelines but not in full uniform for Saturday’s game.
A new NCAA rule for the 2018 season allows players to play in up to four games without losing a redshirt year.
“Yeah, I’m going to see how it goes,” Stoops said of the new rule on media day. “Because each year, sometimes you come with a guy that jumps out of the blocks and you feel like he’s definitely going to play and he may level out. Sometimes there’s injuries late in the year … There’s times like that all the time where we may get thin as the year goes on and a guy has developed over the course of the season.
“So we will just play it out and see how it goes. There’s still going to be some freshmen, I’m sure, that are going to impress us and they are going to play all 12 games, 13 games or 14 games.”