UK Football

Mark Story: The Kentucky high school for which UK football fans should give daily thanks

UK middle linebacker Josh Forrest tackles Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Brooks Haack during the second quarter of the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015.  Photo by Ken Weaver
UK middle linebacker Josh Forrest tackles Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Brooks Haack during the second quarter of the University of Kentucky-Louisiana-Lafayette football game in the newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday 5, 2015. Photo by Ken Weaver Ken Weaver

Kentucky debuting the "new Commonwealth Stadium" last Saturday was a watershed event for the Big Blue. It turned out to be a pretty memorable moment for the Blue Tornado, too.

In UK's first game in Commonwealth since it was enhanced with $120 million of renovations, former Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado stars Josh Forrest and J.D. Harmon had their fingerprints all over Kentucky's 40-33 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Forrest, the wide receiver turned middle linebacker, was in on a game-high 15 tackles (six solo, one for loss) and had the win-clinching interception. Harmon, the backup cornerback who Mark Stoops publicly chastised for undisciplined special-teams play last season, made six tackles, forced a fumble, picked off a pass and also had a 60-yard kickoff return.

In terms of products of one high school putting their stamp on a Kentucky win, last Saturday may not have quite ranked with UK's 21-13 victory at LSU in 1983 in which two graduates of Franklin-Simpson — wide receiver Joker Phillips and defensive back Kerry Baird — combined to score all three Wildcats touchdowns.

Still, it was pretty strong.

"A great, great game for the Tilghman guys," said Randy Wyatt, the ex-Paducah Tilghman head football coach and a 1990s Kentucky running back.

In the Commonwealth Stadium era, there cannot be many high schools that have been better to the Kentucky Wildcats football program than Tilghman has.



From Paducah to Lexington have come halfbacks, Lawrence "Choo-Choo" Lee (lettered at UK in 1981-83) and Wyatt (1993-94 after transferring from Louisville), and fullbacks Richard Abraham (1980-82) and Michael Woodfork (1993-96).

Tilghman has sent Kentucky wide receivers, Dee Smith (1986, '87), Neal Clark (1989-91) and Kurt Johnson (1989-92), a tight end, Marcus Cross (1994-95), and a starting quarterback, Billy Jack Haskins (1995-96).

Defensively, Tilghman delivered to UK a starting defensive end, Jay Dortch (1986-88), linebackers Billy Swanson (1989-90) and Emerson Wells (1992) and defensive back Kiyo Wilson (1993-96).

Now, the "Paducah pipeline" to UK is represented by Forrest and Harmon — teammates on Tilghman's 2009 Class 3A state championship team.

When Forrest was making 77 catches for 1,481 yards and 23 touchdowns as a wide receiver in his final two high school seasons, Wyatt said he would have never dreamed the 6-foot-3 playmaker would bulk up into a 255-pound college linebacker.

"Maybe grow into a tight end," Wyatt said. "But, no, never linebacker."

Harmon was also a big-play receiver in his Tilghman days with 107 catches for 1,931 yards. He walked on at UK in 2012 with a promise from then-coach Joker Phillips of a scholarship by his second season. After Phillips was fired, Stoops put Harmon on scholarship.

Early last season, Harmon emerged as a UK special teams ace. However, after Georgia returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns, Stoops singled Harmon out publicly as having gone rogue on both plays.

"I have rewarded (him) with scholarships and done some things and put it out there to help him," Stoops said then, "and (Harmon's) making a decision not to help us by doing his own thing."

Wyatt acknowledged that a lot of people in Paducah did not appreciate Harmon getting called out in public.

"But knowing J.D. like I do, I think it helped him," Wyatt said. "To really get the best out of J.D., sometimes you have to put him in the corner, really push his buttons. And I think Coach Stoops did that."

This week, Forrest, Harmon and the Cats will travel to South Carolina. For UK, there is a Paducah Tilghman legacy in Williams-Brice Stadium, too.

In the week leading up to Kentucky's 1993 visit to Columbia, the Cats were 1-2. Wyatt, then a Wildcats running back, publicly guaranteed a UK victory. With Kentucky trailing 17-7 early in the fourth period, Wyatt walked his talk by taking an option pitch and streaking 64 yards down the sideline into the end zone.

That play ignited a 21-17 UK comeback victory and launched Kentucky to a Peach Bowl season.

Asked if people still bring that up, Wyatt said. "Every once in a while. It's a good memory."

Wildcats football fans will hope UK's current Paducah Tilghman duo can help create another one of those Saturday.

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