UK Football

Free from doghouse, Kentucky's Harmon tapping into potential on defense, special teams

Kentucky cornerback J.D. Harmon (11) was congratulated after an interception as Kentucky played Louisiana-Lafayette in  Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington Ky, on Saturday September 5, 2015.  Photo by Mark Mahan
Kentucky cornerback J.D. Harmon (11) was congratulated after an interception as Kentucky played Louisiana-Lafayette in Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington Ky, on Saturday September 5, 2015. Photo by Mark Mahan Herald-Leader

No matter how frustrated or angry Mark Stoops gets with his players, he normally tries to keep it out of the public eye.

But after some glaring deficiencies in one particular player's performance on special teams late last season, Stoops clearly had hit his breaking point.

"When guys are not doing what we ask them to do consistently and people's jobs are on the line, that's not acceptable," Stoops said, eventually singling out cornerback J.D. Harmon.

The frustrated UK coach later added: "Can't trust him, can't play him."

Stoops and the former Paducah Tilghman star have come a long way since that day in early November.

His coach didn't quit on him and for that, Harmon is grateful.

"I'm glad he just stayed on me," the 6-foot-2 junior said Saturday after UK's season-opening victory. "I feel like that helped me out a lot. ... He was on me and I think that's what brought out the play tonight."

Extra time spent on Stoops' hip asking questions or studying game footage has changed their relationship, Harmon said.

All of that extra time together ended in what Stoops called Harmon's "best game as a Wildcat" last week against Louisiana-Lafayette.

In a reserve role, Harmon had an interception, a forced fumble and a 60-yard kickoff return — the longest of his career and longest at UK since Stanley "Boom" Williams' 75-yarder last season — to go with his six tackles.

It was Stoops' voice that Harmon heard when he got beat by his man and had to catch up (probably saving a touchdown), eventually forcing a fumble at the Wildcats' 5-yard line.

"One of the things he harps on is finish the play," Harmon said of Stoops. "You know, you might get beat sometimes, but it's how you finish the play. That's what was going through my mind. 'OK, he caught it, now get him down.'"

Harmon has gone from a player that Kentucky's coaches weren't even sure they could count on to play meaningful snaps to a trusted defender.

"He earned some trust and some of our confidence throughout camp because he had been practicing better and playing better and more disciplined in his approach," Stoops said Monday.

"That showed up. Again, he's not perfect. He made a few bad plays but he helped contribute to the win as well. That I am proud of from him."

To hear that from the same head coach who called him out just months earlier had Harmon beaming on Wednesday night.

"Means a lot hearing that from him. It means a lot," said Harmon, who has played in 25 career games with 59 tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups. "It's just great hearing that from him."

It's not just from Stoops, but from Harmon's position coach as well.

"He's a very talented guy and sometimes he didn't play like that, he didn't practice like that," secondary coach Derrick Ansley said. "But now he's a guy who's hungry, who's more mature, who's grown up and a guy that you see around here coaching up the young guys."

Even in his role as a backup cornerback, Harmon has become a key resource for the younger players.

"He's the main guy you see taking the young guys and trying to help them and teach them what they need to do," Ansley continued.

When new true freshman cornerback Chris Westry started asking Harmon for advice and asking him to watch film and explain things to him, the junior was happy to help.

"It was something that needed to be done," Harmon said. "I understand when you're here it's temporary. Those guys are coming in and it's our job to get them ready."

In practice, he tries to bring energy and effort, two words his head coach mentions at least once a sentence.

"I try to get everybody riled up on the sidelines, on the field, making sure everyone is being affected in a positive way," Harmon said. "I try to bring energy to practice. They've got the music going, jumping around, getting those guys riled up and ready."

Injury updates

■ Kentucky probably will go another game without injured starting weakside linebacker Ryan Flannigan, whom Stoops called "very doubtful."

The head coach said Flannigan was still in a red, no-contact jersey during Thursday's walk-through practice. Friday, the Cats do some contact work.

■ The knee injury to true freshman Jordan Jones in the opener appears to be minor, with Stoops saying that the linebacker "has been 100 percent all week."

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