The physical features for Trevard Lindley were the same: the No. 32 jersey, the dreadlocks that flowed underneath the helmet.
But once the ball was snapped, it became clear that it wasn't the same Trevard Lindley that Kentucky football fans had been accustomed to.
A high ankle sprain suffered in the Alabama game Oct. 3 cost Lindley four games and, when he returned for the stretch run, the ball-hawking big-play-maker had been reduced to a bit player. The same players a healthy Lindley would have blanketed were catching passes on him, and receivers who would have never sniffed the end zone on Lindley were beating him for touchdowns. His one interception and 10 pass deflections were the worst numbers of his career.
It's not how Lindley envisioned his senior season. Despite being projected as a second-round pick, he passed up the NFL Draft to return to UK. Now, most early mock drafts have him as a third- or fourth-round selection.
But Lindley still has time to keep his season from being a total wash. He'll suit up one final time for UK in the Music City Bowl on Sunday with a chance not only to lead the Cats to an unprecedented fourth straight bowl win, but also to make one last positive impression on the field before next spring's NFL Draft. The matchup between Lindley and Clemson senior receiver Jacoby Ford probably will be of particular interest to scouts. Ford, the NCAA champion in the indoor 60 meters last season, has caught 53 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, including 14 receptions of 20 or more yards.
"This is my last game so I'd like to go out with a bang," Lindley said. "There'll probably be some scouts there so I've just got to work my hardest on every play and just shut down any receiver on my side."
UK Coach Rich Brooks said Lindley probably isn't 100 percent. But, Brooks said, Lindley is much closer to being fully healthy than he has been since originally hurting the ankle. Lindley admitted to some rust after returning to the field, saying his biggest problems were backpedaling and executing proper press technique.
That was evident in his first game back, when he gave up a 43-yard pass to Eastern Kentucky's Orlandus Harris. The next week, he gave up a 21-yard touchdown to Vanderbilt's John Cole.
"There were a couple plays where I was out of sync on a route, and there were a couple of plays where they'd beat me off the line because I couldn't move certain ways on my ankle," Lindley said. "But you've just got to try and go to the next play and redeem yourself."
The reserved and low-key Lindley isn't the type to publicly lament his decision to return to UK, but the financial difference between a first-rounder and a third-rounder is huge. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Evander "Ziggy" Hood got $6.1 million guaranteed as the final first-round selection in the 2009 draft. Wisconsin tight end Travis Beckum was the final pick of the third round and got a four-year contract worth $310,000 annually in base salary.
UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said that if Lindley does regret his decision, he has never shown it.
"He never wavered in his personality," Brown said. "You never saw him without a smile on his face. There was no difference in his outward demeanor."
And Brown pointed out that Lindley will have a chance to eventually recover any lost money by showing his stuff once he gets to the next level. Brown used himself and former UK linebacker Wesley Woodyard as examples. Woodyard went undrafted before signing with the Denver Broncos. Now a team captain, he has positioned himself for a big payday once his three-year, $1.175 million contract expires in 2011. Brown was a third-round pick by the Houston Oilers in 1983 and ended up a seven-year starter.
"I thought I should have been a first-round pick," Brown said. "Any money (Lindley) may have lost, he can get it back through hard work. I don't care what round you're drafted or if you're not drafted at all, you've got to go in there with the mentality that you're going to be a starter. All the other stuff will come. It's not necessarily about money. It's about being the best. And if you're the best, you'll have a long career and the money will be there."
Lindley will have plenty of opportunities to improve his draft status even after the Music City Bowl. He figures to get an invite to the Senior Bowl and to the NFL Combine, and he'll also get to show his stuff at UK's Pro Day and during individual workouts.
"A lot of it depends on how I do in the Combine and on Pro Day," Lindley said. "I just have to come out and work hard and do well on every drill. I think I can raise my stock once I show scouts my ankle is 100 percent."