John Clay

This year’s Kentucky football Cats crave a piece of the pie

You can learn by experience.

Or you can learn by example.

Kentucky boasts not much of the former this 2019 football season. You’re probably sick of the storyline. Gone, gone, gone are a string of studs, including Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Mike Edwards, Lonnie Johnson, CJ Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei, Bunchy Stallings, Darius West. I’ll stop there.

Instead, it is the latter, the learn by example trope, that should give Big Blue Nation hope for the upcoming grid campaign.

“This senior class that just left was probably the most important class,” said Vince Marrow, UK’s recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, after Tuesday’s practice. “Not because we had the 10 wins and the bowl (win), but they really set an example for the younger guys. And our guys are hungry.”

And why not? They witnessed outside linebacker Allen develop from a two-star recruit into the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL Draft. They saw Snell become the school’s all-time leading rusher in just three seasons. They saw cornerback Johnson go from junior college transfer to second-round pick, safety Edwards from three-star recruit to a third-round selection.

“These guys watched those guys all going to the (NFL) Combine, our name all in the NFL Draft,” Marrow said. “I think (our) guys want a piece of the pie.”

After all, last year’s stars were not overnight sensations. Allen might have burst on the scene last year to sweep nearly every postseason defensive player of the year award, but that came after three hard years of improvement, both mentally and physically. Practically no one had heard of Snell Yeah until he had strung together his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.

These were your hardest workers, your leaders. There might not have been a more respected player on last year’s roster than Darius West, who overcame a pair of leg injuries to turn in a terrific senior season. When West talked, players listened.

Those players were thrown into the fire. They were clearly better than the older players at their position, so they had to play. This year’s first-teamers, their replacements, didn’t have that luxury. Or curse, depending on your point of view. They had to sit, spell on occasion, and learn.

“We actually might be more athletic at certain positions,” said Marrow before joking that he would hear from those former players when they read that statement. “We are more longer and athletic at tight end and more explosive at running back. You look at the secondary and it’s young, but it’s actually more athletic.”

Running back is a good example. UK already had 855-yard rusher Boom Williams when Snell arrived on campus in 2016. Didn’t matter. By the season’s third game, the coaches knew Snell had to play. And he did play, rushing for 136 yards against New Mexico State. By year’s end, Williams had rushed for 1,170 yards; Snell 1,091. Compare that to last year’s arrival of freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez. Three years earlier, both would have probably played immediately. Last year, they learned behind Snell and AJ Rose.

The hope is that same ethos pays dividends in the secondary. Edwards, Johnson, West, Derrick Baity and Chris Westry left huge holes. The season-ending injury to holdover Davonte Robinson (torn quad) was a preseason gut punch. There are plenty of job candidates, however, many of them heralded recruits eagerly awaiting their time to shine.

“When Jordan Griffin and Tyrell Ajian came in the game (last year), we actually didn’t miss a beat,” Marrow said. “Now we’ve got three more slots to fill. But these young guys, I’m very impressed with the Brown kid (Jamari, a redshirt freshman) from Florida. He looks like an NFL corner.”

Looking the part is important, but learning from your predecessors is key. Some major players among last year’s Cats might be gone, but the hope is their example remains.

Said Marrow, “We have guys now that have seen guys do it.”

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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