UK Football

John Clay: Larry Warford's four years vs. Nerlens Noel's four months

Kentucky offensive lineman Larry Warford, who played for the South team in the Senior Bowl in January, said he gained confidence as he matured at UK.
Kentucky offensive lineman Larry Warford, who played for the South team in the Senior Bowl in January, said he gained confidence as he matured at UK. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kentucky held back-to-back news conferences on Tuesday featuring two young men soon to live out their lifelong dreams of being drafted to play in a high-profile professional sport.

Their circumstances could not be much more different.

First was Larry Warford, the 6-foot-3, 332-pound offensive lineman, who this week is expected to be among the top offensive guards taken in the NFL Draft.

When the former Madison Central star hears his name called, he will be the first UK offensive lineman drafted since 1993.

Then there was Nerlens Noel, the 6-foot-11 center whose one and only Kentucky season was cut short by a knee injury, yet is still projected as the first overall pick in the NBA Draft.

If so, Noel would be the third Kentucky basketball player to be the No. 1 overall pick in the past four years.

Warford stayed at UK all four years, barely giving any thought to the given option of bypassing his senior season and entering the draft.

Noel played at UK for four months, from October to February when he suffered a torn ACL during the Cats' loss at Florida, ending the NBA-mandated one year of college hoops before turning pro.

Were the systems reversed, could Warford ever imagine entering the pro ranks after just a year of college?

"Nope," he said with a distinctive shake of the head.

And is there a small part of Noel that wishes he was required to spend at least three years in college without worrying about the decision of whether or not to turn pro?

"No," he said with a shy smile and duck of the head that brought a burst of laughter from the room.

Football and basketball are far different sports, of course. Even though basketball has grown far too physical, it is still not the constant car collision that is football.

"People would get hurt," Warford said of the idea of playing in the NFL after a year of college. "It's really not fair in football. You go play football out of college, what 18 or 19, you haven't matured enough, you haven't built enough strength. You don't understand the game well enough."

You don't understand yourself well enough, either. Asked how he had changed in his four years at Kentucky, Warford answered that he was a much more confident person now, a confidence he earned over four years of work and maturity.

These days, for star basketball players, there's no time to wait. That's the system. The money is there for the taking. Better grab it now. You might get hurt.

Look at Noel, forced to play a year of college basketball only to suffer a major injury, his career and earning potential in jeopardy. For a short while after the injury, he became the poster boy for why it was unfair to make kids go to college.

"I mean, both sides have a reason for it, why they want to go out of high school or why they should do a year of college or two," he said. "I don't get into that too much. I do what I got to do. If I have to go to school for a year, I'm going to do it."

Not that a kid with an NBA dream has an overriding wish to stay longer.

"I mean, I love it here," Noel said. "It's been one of the best experiences of my life, being here at Kentucky, regardless of if it's (not) three or four years."

And what did he get out of his almost-one year?

"It benefited me a lot, especially playing here for Coach (John) Calipari and the coaching staff," he said. "Coach Cal has taught me so much on and off the court. How to be a good person, really know how to have a good work ethic. He made us love to work and just carry yourself and a lot of life lessons that not any regular coach would teach you about off the court."

Nerlens Noel got just four months to learn those lessons.

Larry Warford was afforded the luxury of four years.

He won't be the first name called on Thursday or sign the bigger contract, but he's the lucky one.

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