UK Football

Unknown Jabari Johnson emerges as starter on Kentucky defense

Kentucky defensive end Jabari Johnson (47), who is a regular on special teams, returned a kickoff when Louisiana Monroe began to avoid kicking to Boom Williams on Oct. 11.
Kentucky defensive end Jabari Johnson (47), who is a regular on special teams, returned a kickoff when Louisiana Monroe began to avoid kicking to Boom Williams on Oct. 11. Herald-Leader

The starters for Kentucky's game against Louisiana State were announced last week and the name "Jabari Johnson" popped up for the first time.

"We looked back at him and he was smiling," Kentucky senior Alvin "Bud" Dupree said, with a massive smile on his own face as he described the scene.

Dupree couldn't help but smile as he talked about his defensive teammate, who has played many positions for Kentucky but has never found quite the right fit.

Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 276-pound junior, is one of those players whose name never got called on the big screen as a starter, but who works just as hard as one, Dupree said.

He's a special teams workhorse, a team player who never says a word about how much or how little he plays, Dupree said.

"It's been a long time coming for him," Dupree said of Johnson's start. "He works hard every day. He comes to practice and doesn't complain. ... I'm proud for him to be able to get in and show what he can do and hopefully he'll keep playing."

For Kentucky's coaches it was never about Johnson's effort, it was about finding a place for him to play.

He was the odd man out in a 4-3 alignment and the nickel package. But this spring they put in a different 3-4 package that made room for Johnson.

"They said this might be a good fit for me and it was a good fit for me," said Johnson, a "Jack" linebacker, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot. "Felt like home. I was a natural at it."

Once UK's coaches found that home for him, they knew he would work hard to do his part.

"We run a lot of 3-4 now and moved him to an outside backer and that fits his abilities the best and then he's put his nose down and gone to work and earned playing time," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

Johnson's size, length and strength made him a good fit especially against a punishing running team like LSU last week.

The Stone Mountain, Ga., native finished with two tackles, which brings his career total to six.

He's also been credited with half of a tackle for loss and a fumble recovery this season.

"He has girth to be able to leverage the ball back inside," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. "He really came into his own, because you know he was playing "Mike" (middle linebacker), then we moved him to (defensive) end and then we went to the 3-4 and now he's a guy that can come off the edge. He has the girth to hold up now."

Head coach Mark Stoops has been pleased with the work he's gotten from Johnson, who is in the rotation with Dupree and Jason Hatcher.

"He's big. He has a nice feel for it. He's good on his feet, and we felt like we needed more size in that game," Stoops said. "He's done some good things, he's earned the right to play."

It's been a long road for Johnson, who had two surgeries on his right shoulder as a freshman in 2011.

He tore his labrum his senior year of high school at Stephenson, but decided to play through the pain. By the end of the season, he was first-team all-region with 76 tackles, five sacks and eight tackles for loss.

In his first practice at Kentucky, he tore it again. Sometime during camp, he tore it again, Johnson recalled.

"Coming after my second surgery I had, getting back used to it because I sat out two years straight, so getting back acclimated to it, that was probably the hardest part," Johnson said, showing off the scars on his shoulder.

But Johnson kept working hard and doing what the coaches asked of him and he earned his start.

"It felt good to see all the hard work I put in come to full effect, so it was good playing with my teammates and everything," he said.

Before the start at LSU, Johnson tried not to be too nervous. He consulted with roommates and starting defensive tackles Melvin Lewis and Mike Douglas.

"They kind of talked to me, but at the end of the day, it's just football," he smiled. "I've been playing for so long, ever since I was 4 years old, so it was just football at this point."

'See blue' at Keeneland

Keeneland will take on a decidedly blue hue on Friday.

As a part of Kentucky's homecoming festivities, there will be a "see blue" day at the racetrack, including an event on The Hill, the track's popular tailgating area near the Keene Barn and Entertainment Center.

Starting around noon, the UK pep band, cheerleaders and dance team will lead fans in a pep rally of sorts.

All UK students, alumni and faculty receive free general admission to the track with a valid UK ID.

Lextran will offer a shuttle for students between Keeneland and UK for $1 each way from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first 500 students to ride the shuttle from campus will receive a free T-shirt.

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