By LARRY VAUGHT
Freshman linebackers Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas wanted to believe they were good enough to play as true freshmen this season. Now they know they are indeed good enough to help Kentucky as the Wildcats get set to host Western Kentucky Saturday night.
“I didn’t really believe it, but now I do. Now I get to play next to my good friend. Me and Khalid have got really close in fall camp and now we are together on the field. It is going to be lovely on the field the next two years,” said Thomas, who tweaked a hamstring in last week’s win over Kent State but returned to the game.
“I enjoyed getting to play a lot. I feel it did help a lot to see the younger players get in and enjoy ourselves and get to make plays. It sparked the team a little bit,” Henderson said. “We are a lot more comfortable now that we have got to play. We got our chance and me and Pancho are ready to play. That last game shows the coaches have more trust in me with the schemes.
“I feel playing time is more available to me now. Getting to play helps a lot. The only way to do it is get in there and do it, so I hope this showed the coaches a lot. I am ready for the next game already and was as soon as Kent State ended. I learned and now I am ready for the next opportunity. I will go twice as hard as I have been every day now because I know I can play.”
Henderson already has three tackles in limited playing time and Thomas has two.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Thomas impressed him with the way he changed his attitude on game day.
“Physical guy. He’s a box player. He’s not a guy that’s going to be out in space. The guy really loves to play the game,” Phillips said. “Again, he was one of those guys I saw that the closer we got to the game, he changed. His demeanor changed. His attitude changed.”
Thomas isn’t satisfied with how he played.
“I felt like I did pretty good. I could have did a lot better, but it was my first time and I had first-game jitters, but it felt good and I had fun,” the Florida native said. “I feel like I could do a heck of a lot more. I feel like I could do a lot of good things this year.”
Henderson said linebackers coach Chuck Smith “just basically gave us the absolute truth that we needed to step up” going into the Kent State game based on the way the defense had played against Louisville.
“Myself I played well but I have al ot of improvements to do. I am just ready to get out there, have fun and take the opportunities to play when they come,” Henderson said. “It is all about attitude. You have to give it the best you have got. You can’t let nobody scare you or let your opponent get in your heart or they will take it out of you.
“I feel the first game was a big embarrassment to us. It shocked a lot of our eyes and kind of put us on the back burner, but we came back and had a good week of practice working our butts off and it showed. That’s what we have to do every week.”
Thomas says both he and Henderson have a “nose for the ball and how to get there” and don’t let mistakes impact them.
“We just have to forget it about, learn from our mistakes the next day in film and we just know if we mess up we have to go 100 percent. You can’t dwell on mistakes in games,” Thomas said. “We just made a couple of mistakes (against Kent State) that we have to make up and clean up where we messed up.”
Thomas says nothing inspires him more than to see UK’s offense click the way it did the second half against Kent State. However, he’s just as optimistic about what he’s seen from a defense that has already played six true freshmen.
“I am very excited about the future. Actually a lot of us thought we would not come in and do this many things during the summer when we were doing summer workouts. But now that we have got to know the other guys and know where everybody wants to be, we are convinced that we can do something special here,” Thomas said.
Henderson said UK’s win over Kent State and then No. 8 Arkansas losing to Louisiana-Monroe on the same night shows how quickly perceptions can change about a team or season.
“It is funny how things change, but that is the excitement of college football,” Henderson said. “Losing to Louisville was just a shock to us, but we learned and handled it well.”