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April 5, 2013

Walk-on receivers finding playing time in spring

The situation Neal Brown finds himself in with his wide receivers isn't one many coaches would be envious of. But part of the Kentucky offensive coordinator is jealous of some of his wide receivers.

When Brown was a walk-on wide receiver at Kentucky from 1998-00, there was no shortage of bodies to fill out a depth chart. He found himself scrapping for playing time, catching just 10 passes in the two seasons he played.

Kentucky's current walk-ons have far more opportunity than that. Through three weeks of spring practice, some have even earned playing time with the starting offense.

"I wish our depth was like this when I was playing," Brown said on Friday.

Redshirt freshmen Austin Sheehan and A.J. Johnson have made a name for themselves early. They don't have much experience - but then again, neither do the rest of the Wildcats' receivers.

None of UK's six scholarship players at wide receiver have been full-time starters, so there's not a significant gap between them and the four walk-ons this spring.

"There's no stamp on a scholarship guy, that he gets to get up and play," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "Bottom line is, there are no favorites now."

Sheehan and Johnson both spent some time working with the starting offense in UK's first spring scrimmage last week. The majority of their time is spent with the second string, but even the No. 2 player on the depth chart is likely to play a significant role during the season.

"This is a dream come true, really, with (this coaching staff) coming in," Sheehan said.

There's precedent for walk-ons working their way to a successful role in the system. Wide receiver Alex Torres showed up in Lubbock without an invite to fall camp in 2009 and did more than just make the team.

He started all four years for the Red Raiders, finishing his career with 178 catches for 2,131 yards and 16 touchdowns. Torres wasn't a preferred walk-on, but had 67 catches for 806 yards in his first season.

Then there's the example that Brown sets. Even without a strong playing career at Kentucky, he worked his way to becoming one of the top young coordinators in college football.

"It's definitely encouraging to see where he ended up," Johnson said. "I know it's not impossible for me, being a walk-on."

Johnson started spring practice strong and moved up on the depth chart before UK's first scrimmage, working his way in at the Z receiver position. Sheehan has been playing primarily at the X receiver position, along with junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore Demarcus Sweat.

They've both distinguished themselves with their change-of-direction skill and route running abilities. Sheehan also has the advantage of being the only receiver on the team who has experience playing with sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles. They starred together at Highlands High School, where Sheehan was the Bluebirds' top receiver.

"I kind of know sometimes when he's going to throw me that ball, because we have that connection," Sheehan said. "Say if I have a fade, he'll give me a look and I'll know he's throwing to me."

Saturday's scrimmage will be their next chance to show how they can help. A strong performance just a week before the Blue/White game on April 13 could push a player into the starting lineup as spring practice winds down, setting the tone into summer.

Things won't get easier for players like Sheehan and Johnson from here, when four new scholarship receivers arrive on campus from the 2013 recruiting class. But they have a chance to win a job now and make someone else envous.

"There are all kinds of examples of guys who came from out of nowhere and started making plays and earned scholarships," Brown said.


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