UK Football

‘The ultimate turn.’ How did an unranked prep star become one of UK’s top defenders?

Southaven High School football coach Eddie Stevenson remembers the night Brandin Echols proved he could be a Division I athlete.

Echols, then a senior at one of Mississippi’s largest secondary schools, accounted for about 500 all-purpose yards while playing in all three phases — defensive back, quarterback, return man — for the Chargers in a game against Columbus and its star running back, Kylin Hill.

“That game, I was taking a lot of hits and a lot of hits that I should have stayed down on,” Echols told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday. “But I just kept going and getting back up, ‘cause that’s just how competitive I am. And with Kylin Hill out there, I knew I had to put on.”

Southaven lost. The final score wasn’t even too close — 49-33 — but that didn’t matter. Echols, who had to be helped off the field at the final horn due to exhaustion, was convinced with just one more snap or two he could turn things around for the Chargers.

“We dealt with a loss, but Brandin, he ended up winning so much more than he realized that night because of how far he pushed himself to his full limits, and beyond,” Stevenson said. “It just prepared him to be the young man he is today.”

Echols will make a homecoming of sorts when the University of Kentucky travels to Starkville on Saturday. Mississippi State’s campus is about 2 1/2 hours southeast of Southaven, and it’s where Hill — now a star running back for the Bulldogs — will be waiting once again. Echols is the only current Wildcat who hails from The Magnolia State.

Hill was a four-star prospect and ranked just outside the top 200, nationally, in his class when the two faced off before; Echols wasn’t considered a top-100 recruit in Mississippi.

“He came in one day to the office and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got y’all taken care of. I’m committed and I’m gonna handle my business and I’m ready to go,’” Stevenson said of a preseason exchange between he and Echols in 2016. “From that day forward, he was a man of his word. That was the ultimate turn, right then. He got after it and he got after it in a huge way.”

Echols impressed as an all-around performer for Southaven in his last year. But classes were an afterthought, he said, and that led to him needing to enroll at a junior college to achieve NCAA eligibility. At Northwest Mississippi Community College he became a full-time defensive back — “nobody really wants an undersized receiver,” the 5-foot-11 Echols said — and earned three-star status as a recruit. He signed his letter of intent for UK last December.

Defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale recruited Echols to Kentucky and says he’s gotten better through UK’s first three games. This week Echols is listed as a first-string cornerback after three weeks as a No. 2 on the depth chart.

He’s older but not unique from most members of UK’s secondary in that he’s somewhat learning on the fly, but Echols’ physicality and knack for making big plays — see: the tackle of a blocker and ball-carrier against Florida — has set him apart early.

Clinkscale and UK defensive coordinator Brad White desire greater consistency from Echols and his unit, which so far lags most of the Southeastern Conference in yards allowed.

“I’d like for our guys to understand the game more, understand the situation,” Clinkscale said. “Going into the fourth quarter (against Florida) we were up; that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to work our technique and execute, be aggressive and make plays on the ball. It was a good teachable moment. ... I think (Echols) has got a really good skill set and when he continues to take the coaching and listens and executes his assignments, I think he’ll be a really good player.”

Echols also returned kicks at Northwest Mississippi, and hopes to eventually be part of UK’s return game. He’s taken some special teams reps in practice.

“If Clink don’t come get me, I go out there first,” Echols said with a grin.

In the preseason Echols turned some heads with a comment that he was already better than half the players at his position in the SEC. That’s the kind of swagger Stevenson expects from the guy who tried to single-handedly take down Kylin Hill’s high school team three years ago, and knows he’ll carry it into a “rematch” this weekend.

“I don’t know how much Stoops liked that, but we loved it,” Stevenson said with a laugh. “I’m pretty sure that pissed Stoops off big time. He’s full of confidence, and he should be, cause I’m telling you right now, that boy works his tail off.”

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Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 4 p.m. EDT Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Records: Kentucky 2-1 (0-1 SEC), Mississippi State 2-1 (0-0)

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Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.
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