It’s been a rough few years for Josh Clemons. The junior running back came to Lexington in 2011 as one of Joker Phillips’ most highly-touted recruits, and immediately lived up to the hype, running for 279 years on 65 carries and two touchdowns through six games. Clemons really looked like a star in the making during the Eastern Michigan game, in which he had 14 carries for 126 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown run that, at the time, was the longest in Commonwealth Stadium history.
Unfortunately, all that progress came to an abrupt halt when Clemons injured his knee against South Carolina and had to sit out the rest of his freshman season. Clemons redshirted his sophomore season to rehab, returning to the field in the spring of 2013 with a new head coach and a healthy leg. He had a huge spring, with 10 carries for 56 yards and two catches for 17 yards in the Spring Game, and was poised for a major comeback, until he injured his Achilles’ tendon during offseason workouts. I spoke to Clemons last week, and he said the setback was “devastating,” but the rehab process gave him hope:
“It was very frustrating at first. I was so close to going into fall camp with the guys, so it was devastating at first, but after I sat down and got off the crutches and was able to work again, my confidence level rose up and I had fun watching the guys play.
Clemons spent all of last season rehabbing his ankle, and now he’s back at spring practice again. How’s the ankle? “It’s doing fine,” Clemons said. “It feels normal. It feels like I’m going at 100%.”
Mark Stoops agrees, telling reporters a few weeks ago that Clemons may be even more comfortable on the field this year than last. “He really looks good, he does. He almost looks more comfortable right now before his last injury,” Stoops said, adding that the staff is being cautious not to overwork him. “It is good to see him out there and we are trying to be very smart with him and get him through this spring. We have good backs so we are rotating all those guys and just trying to be smart with him as far as reps are concerned.”
Fear of reinjury can haunt some players for the rest of their lives, and after he injured his knee his freshman year, even Josh admitted that he babied it a bit last spring. I asked Josh if that’s been a concern for him this season, and he said that there are so many distractions, it’s easy not to focus on his ankle and knee.
“It’s kind of easy because we have so many different things we could be looking at, like looking at the defense, knowing my assignment and playing fast, so you don’t really have time to think about stuff like that.”
Running back is one of Kentucky’s strongest positions so far, with Clemons, sophomore JoJo Kemp, transfer Braylon Heard, and freshman Mikel Horton battling it out in spring practice. Freshman superstar Boom Williams will be added to the mix in the fall, making the running back position the deepest it’s been in years. Clemons had earned plenty of kudos from his coaches so far. Right now, he says he’s only focusing on himself, and doing what the coaches ask of him.
“I’m just trying to be able to do everything the coaches ask me to do, whether it’s picking up the blitz or running the ball, reading the right keys, catching the ball in the backfield. I’m just trying to execute all the plays to the best of my ability.”
Even though he had a good spring last year, Clemons said this year, he’s taken his game to a new level. “I feel like I’m playing a little faster than I was last spring, understanding my assignments a little better,” Clemons said, a progression he’s seeing in the team as a whole. “As a team, I think we’re a lot farther ahead than we were at the end of last season, so everyone is making strides in the right direction.”
In fact, Clemons says fans that come out to Saturday’s Spring Game will see a “whole different team”: “I hope fans all come out because we’re a whole different team than last year, everybody’s mindset this year is on winning games, and we’re going to win games.”
For a program in the midst of the rebuilding process, there may be no better representative than Clemons, ready for his third shot at stardom after a long, hard road.