UK Football

Kentucky tight end Melillo making impact as senior

Kentucky tight end Nick Melillo (42) and receiver Matt Roark celebrated Melillo's third-quarter touchdown catch against Vanderbilt on Nov. 12. The senior has 16 receptions for 171 yards this season.
Kentucky tight end Nick Melillo (42) and receiver Matt Roark celebrated Melillo's third-quarter touchdown catch against Vanderbilt on Nov. 12. The senior has 16 receptions for 171 yards this season. Amy Wallot

There was a time when Nick Melillo wasn't sure he even wanted to play football anymore.

The former Louisville Trinity standout had played a handful of games as a wide receiver at Lindenwood University in Missouri before breaking his pinkie finger and having to sit out.

"Things went downhill from there," Melillo would say later of his desire to play the game.

Fast forward a few years, and everything changed.

He had walked on at Kentucky, gained nearly 50 pounds and changed positions.

Now going into his senior day, Melillo is the starting tight end at UK, where he has 16 catches for 171 yards this season and a touchdown.

Did Melillo see it coming?

"I'm a confident person," he said. "I always knew, if I worked hard enough, I'd be able to play and contribute."

That starting job was in doubt in the pre-season when he was one of five or six players vying for the spot.

Jordan Aumiller got the nod against Western Kentucky in the opener before Melillo rose to the occasion.

The team's other tight ends can learn a lot from the senior, said Greg Nord, his position coach.

"(Melillo's) competitiveness and his effort in practice and his commitment to the game were some of the things that helped him edge out over the other guys," Nord said.

Edginess is the other thing that made Melillo stand out.

"He's not shied away from anything," Nord said. "He's tried to take the approach to the game that I'm trying to get all my guys to take. And that's to play with an attitude, to play with that cockiness and chip on your shoulder."

Melillo has had to play that way, Nord said.

"He's undersized and we're going to ask him to block a 270-pound player and he doesn't have that confidence, he may not even try."

Melillo's blocking ability coupled with his ability to catch passes are what has given the former walk-on 10 straight starts this season, Coach Joker Phillips said.

"Melillo is probably the most complete tight end," the coach said when asked about the tight end spot on Tuesday. "Almost sad to say, but Melillo is a fighter. He's 230 pounds and he's a fighter. He'll fight you and he can run and catch the football."

UK's tight ends have become more integral parts of the offense in the past couple of games and Melillo has done what he could to help the others like Tyler Robinson (eight catches, 44 yards) and Anthony Kendrick (three catches, 22 yards) along.

Mostly he's helped them by setting a good example, Nord said.

"They see that he has gotten a chance to be the starter and they see what he did to earn that," Nord said. "When they want to seize it in the next competition, they're going to have to emulate Nick."

Quarterbacks coming back

One quarterback, Morgan Newton, is feeling better and the other, Maxwell Smith, is trying to get there.

Smith didn't have any reps at practice on Tuesday because of the shoulder sprain he suffered against Georgia, but the true freshman who has started the past three games is working hard to get back in time for Saturday.

"I was here until 10 and (Smith) was still here last night getting rehab, strength training and all of those things," Phillips said. "He's a guy that really wants to play, that's half the battle. When a guy really wants to play, he's going to work to play and Max is working."

Trainers are telling the coach that Smith might be able to practice on Wednesday or Thursday.

Newton, who has a hurt shoulder and ankle, got "light reps at the quarterback position," Phillips said.

Injury report

Safety Martavius Neloms (ankle) did not practice on Tuesday and is doubtful, as is linebacker Ridge Wilson, who is still not back from dealing with family illness. Defensive tackle Christian Coleman (elbow) did not practice, either.

Defensive tackle Donte Rumph (ankle) is better this week than last.

"He's still a little hobbled, but he looked better today than he did all of last week," Phillips said.