It was a natural reaction for most people who looked at the Kentucky football depth chart for the Louisville game and saw Luke McDermott penciled in as a starter at defensive tackle.
No, Joker Phillips isn't trying to sneak a ringer in there. McDermott is a fourth-year junior walk-on who has played in six career games. But with practice closed to the public and media, nobody outside of the Nutter Training Facility could have predicted a little-known walk-on who had no scholarship offers after graduating from Louisville Trinity High School would be in the starting lineup next to Ricky Lumpkin when the Cats kick off against Louisville on Saturday.
McDermott said he weighed 230 pounds when he arrived in Lexington. He spent countless hours putting on weight and sharpening his technique trying to catch the eyes of the coaching staff.
"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think I could play," McDermott said. "I wouldn't go through all this work if I didn't think there was going to be something in it."
McDermott saw only mop-up duty as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, and with UK bringing in scholarship tackles each year, his dreams of making the rotation started to fade. But he wanted to pursue a career in coaching, so he decided to stick it out and soak up all the knowledge he could.
McDermott said he saw a window of opportunity when Phillips took over as head coach in January.
"With the last coaching staff, walk-ons really didn't get much of a look," he said. "I didn't know if it would be the same way or not, but I felt like I would get more of a look with the new staff."
Phillips then gave McDermott an order.
"We said, 'Go to the dining hall, eat; as soon as you get full, eat some more,'" Phillips said. "He's over to the dining hall an hour and a half, two hours sometimes. We'll leave breakfast and go back at lunch, he's still there. You go in the weight room, he's in there two and three hours. The guy just continues to do everything he needed to do to get himself ready to play at this level. We've had some injuries, and Luke has had a lot of reps and taken advantage of them. He's just one of those guys that has a high motor, is real aggressive and will never back down from anyone or anything."
McDermott is still undersized for a tackle. He's listed at 6-foot-1, 265 pounds in the UK media guide, but he said he's closer to 280. UK defensive end DeQuin Evans called McDermott a "workaholic" and said he's trusted and well-respected by teammates.
"He works on his craft and technique like no one I've ever seen before," Evans said. "He's there 30 minutes before we get to practice, and he stays after to talk to coaches, and he stays in film room. He's a walk-on, but if you came out to the field and didn't know he was a walk-on, you'd think he was a scholarship guy."
McDermott said becoming a technician was basically the only way he was going to get on the field.
"I work on that as much as anybody," he said. "I wouldn't be able to compete with those big guys if I didn't use technique."
Phillips admitted he's trying to light a fire under senior Shane McCord, who was viewed as a more likely candidate to start.
"We're trying to get (McCord's) attention; there's no question about that," Phillips said. "We want him to play with the passion and motor that Luke is playing with."
Two more tackles, freshman Donte Rumph and junior Mark Crawford, are recovering from injuries, and McDermott realizes his time as a starter could be brief.
"They put me in there, but they can take me out just as fast," McDermott said.
Still, the UK coaching staff insists that the move isn't some gimmick or charity case and that McDermott is legit.
"I've got full confidence in him," said UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown. "He's no different than Wesley Woodyard in that every snap, he goes full speed and tries to do the right thing. Guys like that should be rewarded."
Being the story of the day clearly hasn't gone to McDermott's head. He received numerous calls and texts on Monday as the news broke that he was starting, but he displayed a reserved, low-profile persona as he was being bombarded by reporters seeking an interview for the first time.
"I don't think too much about it," he said. "I just keep my mind on my work."
Schnellenberger Awardto honor game MVP
The Louisville Sports Commission announced that the most valuable player from the Kentucky-Louisville game will be presented the Howard Schellenberger Award, named for the former UK letterman and U of L head coach.
UK alumni pep rally Friday
The Louisville chapter of the UK Alumni Association will host "Big Blue Invasion 2," a pep rally for Wildcats alumni and fans.
The event will be Friday at 8:30 p.m. along the 1000 block of Lexington Road. It will include two live bands, UK pep music/cheers, giveaways (including tickets to the game) and introductions to former UK players.
The cover charge is $3. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the UK Alumni Association Scholarship Endowment Fund.