Counting a redshirt season, wide receiver E.J. Fields did not catch a single pass his first three years at the University of Kentucky. But he hadn't forgotten how.
His preparation for a seven-reception breakout game last weekend extended all the way to fielding practice questions from the media afterward.
"I actually practiced speaking to the media to myself in the mirror," Fields said earlier this week.
A reporter playfully asked if he grilled himself with pointed questions.
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No, Fields said, he didn't put himself on the proverbial spot.
"It was kind of a motivational thing," he said. "Building confidence in myself."
Fields could have taken bows. But considering the pain associated with a 24-17 loss to Louisville, he kept any personal joy well contained.
"Kind of bittersweet," he said of the experience. "You kind of feel like you did well, but there's always something else you can do. It wasn't enough."
Fields played quarterback and cornerback for Frankfort High School. After a redshirt season at UK, he lost his freshman season because of a foot injury. The success of such receivers as Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews left Fields as a special teams player as a sophomore.
"He made his mark on special teams," said Tee Martin, UK's wide receivers coach. "Now, those guys (Cobb, Matthews and company) left, and it's time for him to step up."
All the while, Fields had no receptions.
"You get slightly discouraged," he acknowledged. He attributed his perseverance to family support and a willingness to keep working to improve.
A suspension for the opening game this season further delayed Fields' debut as a wide receiver. Fields did not travel on his own to Nashville to watch Kentucky play Western Kentucky in the opening game.
"It was tough watching teammates and friends struggle," he said.
UK Coach Joker Phillips vouched for Fields' attitude during the years in the football wilderness.
"His attitude has been great," Phillips said. "We never questioned his attitude (or) his want to play."
Whatever doubts existed about Fields' ability to catch the ball, he tried to erase this past off-season. He guessed he caught 200 or 300 passes a day. "It came easy after that," he said.
Jacob Russell, a quarterback from Anderson County sitting out this season as a transfer from Eastern Kentucky, did the throwing.
"He was really there for me," Fields said, "and I thank him a lot."
Although Fields was non-existent in Kentucky football from a statistical view, he had the attention of the coaches. Martin noted that Fields played consistently well in practice.
"What's tough for coaches sometimes is when a guy hasn't done it in games, but he's doing it in practice," Martin said. "... Is he ready or not for the games? The only way to find out is by putting him out there. The only way you find out about a guy who hasn't played is to throw him out there.
"That's what we're doing: putting guys out there and giving them opportunities. And guys who are performing, they keep playing."
An injury to Gene McCaskill early in the Louisville game led Martin to turn to Fields.
"I've kind of been ready the whole time," Fields said. "Coach Tee told me to be ready and stay ready. When he called my name, that was my opportunity to make plays.
"I can't say I was really surprised. It was really relief. Like, finally."
Fields even suggested it was easier to perform in the game than in practice.
"I guess the adrenaline and being on the field made things a lot simpler," he said.
Given the long road Fields walked to get into the Louisville game as a receiver, Martin had a keen rooting interest. The coach all but held his breath and waited to see if the practice performance translated to the game.
"I was so happy for him," Martin said. "As coaches, you get nervous."
That scenario probably plays out for several players and coaches in this transitional year for UK football.
After the breakout game, Kentucky listed Fields as first string at one of the wide receiver positions on this week's depth chart.
Noting the adjustment Fields made to beat a defender to a touchdown pass late in the Louisville game, Phillips said, "Those things give receivers a chance. He got a chance to play and took advantage of it. He'll get even more of an opportunity this week."