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Kentucky’s Historic Draft Class Overcame Immense Obstacles to Reach NFL Dream

In the modern NFL Draft era, Kentucky has never had more than four players selected in one draft. That will change this weekend in Nashville.

Kentucky’s 2019 draft class has broken records and achieved many new “firsts,” all while taking the program to heights not reached in decades. They’re a likable group, but not just because of their success. What makes this group of players so incredibly endearing is what they had to overcome to be successful.

“They are a special group,” Mark Stoops said earlier this week. “You guys have never got me to cry up here but I could darn near cry right now. I just appreciate those guys.”

From injuries to homelessness, the special group overcame the unbelievable odds to hear their names called in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Josh Allen

Thursday night will be Freddie Maggard’s ultimate, “I told you so,” moment. Few believed in the 2-star recruit. Now Allen will get the last laugh.

A skinny kid who grew up with a stutter, Allen moved in with his aunt and uncle in Alabama to attend high school. “Smooth” would not be a good word to describe the transition. Bullied and beat up, the wide receiver wanted to quit more than once. Fate would not let that happen. After three seasons of football, Allen was an all-state wide receiver. Still, his journey would not get any easier.

Allen moved home to New Jersey to complete his final year of school at Montclair High School. It did not take long for his coach to move him across the line of scrimmage. Playing with his hand in the dirt was new, but he was a natural. By the season’s end, Allen led the state in sacks. That kind of production should lead to something, right? Wrong. Monmouth was the only school willing to offer him a scholarship. His high school coach, John Fiore, was willing to bet his house that Allen would be a success, yet the Rutgers’ coaching staff still wouldn’t offer. Luckily, Kentucky was willing to take a chance, one I think worked out okay.

Four National Defensive Player of the Year awards and a pair of school records later, Allen will be a top ten pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The skinny kid with a stutter transformed into this guy:

Lonnie Johnson

“If I tell y’all the whole story, you wouldn’t even believe it.”

Lonnie Johnson should not be here. The world class athlete grew up in Gary, Indiana. He learned at a young age how to deal with death and how to stay out of trouble.

“I never went out creating problems, but I didn’t run from any,” Johnson told NFL.com. “I tried to keep my head low and I never got into it with anyone from Glen Park. That’s how bodies drop, when you go in the wrong neighborhood.”

Watching his peers pass away was obviously difficult, but it’s still not the most traumatic experience of his young life. That happened when hard times forced his family out of their home. His mother and father were employed, but could not afford to quickly find a place for their family.

“The toughest thing for me is being homeless with my parents for six months with my grandma. We stayed with 13 other people, so there were 17 total in the house, two bedrooms, just one bathroom. That probably was the toughest thing I dealt with mentally. It just helped me become strong,” Johnson added. “It helped me become humble. Anything can get taken away from you at any moment.”

That’s exactly what happened when he tried to get out of Gary. The four-star wide receiver failed to academically qualify to attend Ohio State. It took three years and two junior colleges (one of which included a two-hour daily commute) before he was academically eligible to sign with the University of Kentucky. The ultimate goal of reaching the NFL motivated Johnson to do things the right way every single day in Lexington.

“Since he has been on campus, I have not had to have one difficult conversation with him. He has handled his business every day that he has been here. He goes to class. He graduated early. He works hard,” Mark Stoops said.

“He spent three years being a corner. He has great upside. I am not saying he is perfect, but he has done everything right since he has been here. I just have great appreciation for him and he has great upside because he is still learning the game.”

Johnson’s upside could potentially make him a first round pick. Scouts left the Senior Bowl amazed by his size and speed. With only three years of experience at cornerback, he’s not the most polished product.

“I’m still hungry, determined. I’ve been through a lot just to get to this moment. I still got my best football ahead of me,” Johnson said.

Once he reaches the league, his job is not finished. There’s much more to achieve, but first, he’s taking care of his family.

“I’m buying my mom a house, for sure.  I’m buying my mom a house so she doesn’t have to be homeless anymore.” He added, “This is all I ever wanted to do.  This is my dream.”

He might not be the only Johnson from Gary drafted. His cousin, Jon’vea Johnson, had more than 2,000 yards receiving at Toledo and is expected to be a late round draft pick.

Mike Edwards

Before he was a Kentucky Wildcat, he was a middle school kid who needed a place to play football. When budget shortfalls forced Winton Woods to cancel football, Mike Edwards was prepared to transfer, a move his teachers considered foolhardy.

“Teachers were telling me, “Why do you wanna play in the NFL? You’re not going to play in the NFL,'” he recalled in an interview with WLWT.

“‘You know the odds of making it to the NFL? You’re so young. You’ve got to think about doing something else.’ Why do I got to do something else? I always wanted to prove those teachers wrong. I always knew I could do it. I just had to believe in myself.”

Edwards transferred, then returned to Winton Woods for high school football, propelling him to an All-SEC career at Kentucky. One of two defensive backs in UK’s 300-tackle club, the safety is now considered one of the safest picks in the NFL Draft, projected to fall between the third and fourth round,.

Benny Snell

Benny Snell arrived on Kentucky’s campus with a chip on his shoulder. He’ll take that with him wherever he goes in the NFL.

The 247 Composite ranked Snell as the No. 56 running back in America as a high school senior. After becoming Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher and earning All-SEC honors, little has changed. Scouts only project him to be a fifth or sixth round pick after he posted average combine numbers. The doubters will only throw more fuel on Benny’s fire.

“Benny is no different right now then the day he walked in in many ways,” said Stoops. “He is competitive, driven and it is hard to put a measure on that heart. Benny is going to be successful because that is just the way he is wired.”

Darius West

One injury after another after another nearly derailed West’s football career. He could not complete his senior season of high school football because of a leg injury. Before earning UK’s starting free safety position as a junior, he had to rehabilitate two more significant leg injuries.

Even though West only had two seasons to captivate NFL scouts, he made the most of his opportunity. In his final season the safety recorded 86 tackles, six pass break-ups and a team-high three interceptions. He followed that up with an exceptional Senior Bowl and a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, tied for the 11th fastest among all participants.

“He was a touch moody at times,” Stoops said with a grin,”but now it is great to see him grow and see him with a smile on his face.” That smile will only grow when he’s selected by an NFL team Saturday afternoon.

C.J. Conrad

For four years, C.J. Conrad demonstrated what it’s like to be a selfless member of the Kentucky football community. An exceptional pass-catcher, as fans publicly called for Conrad to receive more touches, he happily sacrificed himself to pave the way for Snell’s three straight 1,000-yard seasons. While juggling school and football, he visited the Kentucky Children’s Hospital each Tuesday. Just as Conrad was prepared to reap the rewards for his many sacrifices, it all nearly vanished.

Doctors discovered an undiagnosed heart problem at the NFL Combine. Sent home for further tests, the heartbreaking news paralyzed his family for weeks.

“It was an emotional time for him and his family,” Stoops said. “At the time, he didn’t know what to do. He was done with school, so he just came in and hung out with us and basically was a coach. He was here early and watching film and doing everything he could do to be around football.”

After two and a half weeks, the Conrad’s roller coaster of emotions came to a halt.

“It was tough for me and my family over the past couple weeks, so when me and my mom headed up to Boston on Monday, just to hear that,” he paused, “you have no idea. I’m so happy to be out here.”

The setback may have knocked him out of the NFL Draft. Vince Marrow believes his tight end should still be picked, if not, somebody’s going to get a steal.

“You can hear this from me right now, C.J. will not be a free agent. I guarantee you that,” Marrow said. “I think what people are going to get with C.J. is he’s smart. He’s a student of the game. In the NFL you only play three or four tight ends, so you gotta play hurt. That kid played hurt from freshman (year) all the way to his senior year.  You save roster spots when you do that…I will bet C.J. plays eight to ten years in the NFL because the tight end coach, the offensive coordinator, the offensive line coach are going to love him because he brings what you need to bring to that room. I’m so excited for him.”

Kentucky’s record-setting class has one more record to break. This one will change their lives forever.

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Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR