Kentucky’s senior class will play their final home game at Kroger Field as a Top 25 team. They will leave the field with more SEC wins than any other senior class in school history. That success didn’t happen overnight.
When Mark Stoops recruited these players to Kentucky, there wasn’t much to sell.
“I came here, really with a vision,” C.J. Conrad said. “Coach Stoops gave all of us kind of what was going to happen. We were at the old facility. It was grass, there wasn’t turf on the field. The stadium wasn’t renovated or anything like that. We had to buy into a vision.”
To reach this point, it wasn’t easy. A few players, like Mike Edwards and Darius West, were four-star talents that turned down offer from big schools to come to Kentucky. For Josh Allen, it was really the two-star recruit’s only option. He embraced the challenge and transformed into one of the college football’s most dominant defensive players.
“We worked extremely hard for this. Every year we got better, team-wise and individually. We worked hard for this. This senior class sacrificed so much to get here,” Allen said. “We went through so much and worked extremely hard for this moment.”
Darius West will have his moment Saturday morning. The senior safety leads the team in tackles (66) and interceptions (3) after overcoming not one, not two, but three serious leg injuries. The injuries forced West to miss more than three years of football.
“It’s just a special feeling for me because I didn’t get my senior year of high school,” West told the Herald-Leader. “So this season is real special.”
Injuries also hampered Dorian Baker’s career. The wide receiver that has all too often been plagued by drops, played his entire junior year with a nagging hamstring injury. Once he was healthy enough to play, he caught a 35-yard game-tying touchdown against Louisville in the corner of the end zone that sparked the Cats’ victory over Lamar Jackson.
Others dealt with self-inflicted adversity. As a freshman, Tymere Dubose was one of a handful of players that shut down south campus in an infamous pellet fun incident. Poor grades almost forced him to leave the team. Stoops sidelined him for one spring practice, but he never gave up on Dubose. This season Dubose has been a contributor on the defensive line and is expected to graduate.
Many fans wanted Stoops to give up on Jordan Jones long ago. The All-SEC selection confronted fans at Southern Miss and was in the middle of multiple altercations against Louisville. Stoops stood by Jones’ side. He did not change his ways overnight, but Jones developed enough discipline to lead one of the SEC’s best defenses (even with a broken hand).
Before Bunchy Stallings won two SEC Offensive Linemen of the Week awards as a senior, the offensive guard struggled playing center as a junior. Poor shotgun snaps but the Cats behind the 8-ball, all while he was dealing with a loss. Bunchy lost his mother to cancer just before the start of the 2017 season. He couldn’t have coped with the loss without his teammates.
“My brothers, they’re at my hip,” Bunchy said. “I look to them for motivation, for techniques, for things I need to just work on. So without those guys, I probably wouldn’t be the player I am today.”
Lonnie Johnson never thought he would make it this far.
“Where I come from, don’t nobody teach us that, to take care of your academics, get it done right now,” Johnson said shortly after arriving on campus. “I’m from a city where you can get killed, like that (snaps his fingers). It really wasn’t about academics for me in high school, it was about staying out of the way.”
Since he struggled with academics, the Gary, Indiana native did not qualify to attend Ohio State out of high school. After a year of junior college, he still was not academically eligible. Johnson had to sit out of football for a year to focus on academics. After a long journey, he punched his ticket to Kentucky.
“I didn’t actually think I would make it to Division I,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think I’d be here for real.”
After two years, he’s caught the eyes of NFL scouts and helped turn Kentucky into a winner.
“It’s humbling. You got a chance to do something special still. Being a part of changing the program around, I just thank God for that.”
Through the senior class’ time at Kentucky, they’ve slowly and steadily improved. The last two seasons ended with seven regular season wins, but a pair of bowl game losses. The Music City Bowl loss left the veterans with a bad taste in their mouths.
“We made a statement before camp even started after the last game last year, we’re not going to be like that. That’s not how we’re going to leave our legacy,” Baity said. “There were 16 guys that were there when we were losing. Sixteen guys, 16 different opinions and mentalities, we put it all together because that’s not going to be us.”
It’s not just all talk. Kentucky beat Florida for the first time in 31 years to give the Cats a winning record in the SEC for the first time in 41 years. They took a slight step back against Tennessee, but are prepared to make sure that loss does not sour a special season.
“We’re changing in the right direction,” said Allen. “This senior class, we’ve done a lot for this program. It’s only right to go out with a bang. We decided coming here that we were going to do something special. I feel like we had something special when I first saw these guys here. Just to get to the point where we’re at today is amazing. The growth we’ve made and the progress we’re making, it’s unbelievable.”