UK Football

UK football: Mark Stoops singles out J.D. Harmon for specials teams miscues

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops yelled at an official in the second quarter.
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops yelled at an official in the second quarter. Herald-Leader

Mark Stoops never has been one for calling out players by name, even when frustrated by how they're playing.

"I'm not one to sit here and throw anybody under the bus," he said early last season. "I said it from the very beginning: It's our job to put them in position to be successful."

But the Kentucky coach was clearly frustrated by one special teams player he believed was repeatedly out of position on two touchdowns Saturday.

At his weekly Monday news conference, Stoops said those plays in particular were most disappointing to him because he's talked about the team "having the toughness and having the attitude to do what you're asked to do."

Without naming names initially, Stoops said one player chose not to do what he'd been asked, and it was costly on both of Isaiah McKenzie's special teams scores (a 90-yard kickoff return and a 59-yard punt return). That player, Stoops said, made "the decision not to help us by doing his own thing."

Stoops said that player was one he'd previously "rewarded with scholarships and done some things and put it out there to help him, and he's making the decision not to help us by doing his own thing."

When asked directly if cornerback J.D. Harmon was the player he was discussing since he was the only one who fit the description, Stoops paused and confirmed that it was.

"You know that's hard for me to do, too," Stoops said. "I have a real hard time singling guys out, but when guys are not doing what we ask them to do consistently and people's jobs are on the line, that's not acceptable."

Normally the first player on kicks to arrive when the ball does, Harmon is the last player chasing down McKenzie on the replays of both touchdowns.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore cornerback, who has played in all 10 games this season and has 28 tackles, doesn't make it all the way down the field on either play. Kentucky's defensive players are not available for comments until Wednesday after practice.

Later on Monday, Harmon seemed to have received his head coach's message loud and clear: "I accept the challenge!" he tweeted.

He followed up with tweets adding: "Blessed with another week and opportunity!!" as well as "Be the change you wish to see ..."

Stoops seemed willing to keep giving Harmon opportunities, adding that the coaches will "continue to work with him."

But if it continues, the message was clear: "Can't trust him, can't play him," Stoops said.

Wide receiver rearranging

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has said repeatedly that the Cats' depth chart is fluid, including last week when Stanley "Boom" Williams was listed as the starter on Monday, but it turned out to be junior Braylon Heard on game day.

Williams, coming off of his 100-yard performance against Georgia, is back atop the running back chart this week.

But there were a few more notable changes at wide receiver, including moving walk-on Joey Herrick ahead of leading wideout Ryan Timmons.

"It's performance-related," Stoops said. "Ryan does some things extremely well and some things that were a work in progress, so we will continue to work and push him."

Dorian Baker also moved ahead of fellow freshman Garrett Johnson at one of the outside receiver spots.

On the defensive depth chart, there was one change: Jason Hatcher moved back ahead of Jabari Johnson at one of the hybrid defensive end/linebacker spots. The two have been going back and forth there recently.

Montgomery's been missed

For the second straight season, Kentucky's been playing with a relatively young group of wide receivers. Along with that comes with big plays and big mistakes, as UK has learned at various times this season.

A few games back, Stoops even pondered pulling the redshirt off of sophomore wideout Alexander Montgomery to try to gain some consistency at that position.

"He certainly is a guy we're missing a great deal," Stoops said of Montgomery, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament at around this time last season.

"To his credit, he was ready to go, whether it's three games, four games, if I asked him right now I believe he would come play, if he thought it could help us win a game but I don't think that's the right thing to do for that young man," Stoops said.

Of fellow sophomore wide receiver Jeff Badet, who broke his leg in the spring and then had an eye injury late in fall camp, Stoops said: "He isn't quite as close. He is back there practicing, but to the point where he can make a difference or play better than the other guys, I don't know without all the reps."

Injury updates

Kentucky's defense should have two of its starters available for the game at Tennessee. Defensive end Za'Darius Smith sprained his ankle versus Georgia, but Stoops was hopeful he could play.

Stoops also was hopeful that nickel back Blake McClain, who hurt his shoulder early in the loss at Missouri, will be able to return this week, same with defensive tackle Regie Meant (shoulder).

As for tight end Steven Borden, who has missed three straight games with an undisclosed injury, he is still a question mark.

"Borden has been iffy, he's tried to come back each week and just hasn't been ready," Stoops said of the senior.

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