Jojo Kemp was the Wildcat hero of South Carolina. Boom Williams was dynamite in overtime against Florida and at Louisville. And then there’s Mikel Horton.
The true freshman came to Kentucky a semester early, with much anticipation. The first time I saw the powerful back in person, flashbacks of Michael Bush ensued. When the Cats needed a push inside, Horton would hear the call.
Unfortunately, Mikel’s (pronounced MY-kell) freshman season didn’t follow the perceived plan. He started the season with a bang, running for two touchdowns against UT-Martin. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, but his touches began to dwindle after fumbling his first carry of the game against #1 Mississippi State, putting them deep into Kentucky territory.
Neal Brown admitted afterward that he was too quick to jump the gun by pulling out the nervous true freshmen, but there was more behind Horton’s story. To be blunt – he was out of shape.
“I felt heavy,” Horton said in a Spring interview. The explosiveness he displayed in high school just wasn’t there. Back then, being bigger than everybody paid off, but the SEC is a different story. To hit the holes faster and harder, he had to change.
“When I first came here I was about 245, about 14% body fat,” Horton said. “I didn’t really look like a running back, more like a linebacker.”
In the offseason, the competition at the running back position inspired him to change his body. He took the initiative to play with a higher tempo, by living life with a higher tempo. He cut bread out of his diet. After morning workouts and class, he went back to the training center to hop on the exercise bike for a couple of hours.
“Now I’m 220, 8% body fat and I’m moving quick,” Horton said after only three months of intensive conditioning. “The way I was before, I thought I was being selfish because I wasn’t giving it my all as far as getting my body weight right, making sure I was fit and ready to go at practice.”
It was a quick transition, but it wasn’t easy an easy one. Everyday he had to remind himself before hopping on the bike, “I’m doing something better for myself and my team.”
After repeating the process over and over, Horton has thrust himself into an ideal position to compete for snaps at running back. People focus too often on the quarterback position, even though the running backs are probably the most intense. They aren’t just competing in practice, they’re racing Coach Scott to meetings. The losers have 20 pushups.
During the few practices we were allowed to watch, Horton’s transformation was obvious. A guy that would’ve been used exclusively between the tackles last year made one of the most athletic catches of the Spring. Motioned out to the slot, Horton slid behind the outside receiver on a wheel route, snagging a slightly overthrown ball down the sideline. Horton no longer feels heavy.
Horton exemplifies the learning curve of collegiate football. It took some early lumps, but he’s discovered the daily steps it takes to compete at the highest level. Any extra time on the field is time well spent, whether it’s practicing before a bowl game, or arriving early to campus, “If I wouldn’t have came here early, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I’d probably still be 240,” Horton said. “It helped me grow up quick.”
Horton was already grown when he arrived to Kentucky. Now he’s a man that’s ready to be heard this Fall.
“I’m a complete back now.”