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By LARRY VAUGHT
Because he didn’t accept Kentucky’s scholarship offer soon enough, J.D. Harmon had to make an even bigger sacrifice to join the football team as a walk-on player. He had academic scholarship money that he had to turn down to play football because if he had accepted it, he would have counted against UK’s scholarship total. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips also offered him a chance to grayshirt and not enroll until January, but Harmon wanted to play.
“He wanted to come in and play. So the only option for him was to pay his own way,” Phillips said. “For him to do that speaks volumes because he had to give up some academic money to do it. I’m really happy that he did get here.”
Harmon, who will go on scholarship before next season, had his best game in last Saturday’s loss at Missouri when he intercepted two passes to start the second half. He also had a career-high seven tackles after going into the game early when starting cornerback Cody Quinn injured his hamstring. Harmon shared his thoughts on his journey from Paducah Tilghman High School to UK.
Question: How do you view this season since you have gone from a relatively unknown walk-on receiver to a contributor as a true freshman in the secondary?
Harmon: “I am very proud. It takes a lot of hard work and patience. I have just been waiting for my name to be called. I do anything these ask. It just comes with being that guy that guy comes in and does what all the coaches want with hard work. It pays off with patience. You just have to wait.”
Question: It’s not easy for non-scholarship players to impress coaches, so what did you do to catch the coaches’ eyes so quick?
Harmon: “I just worked hard in the weight room. When we ran, I tried to be first and challenged a couple of freshmen. When they needed something to be done, I did it. I showed I was really dedicated to earning my scholarship and that I could play with these guys without the scholarship. I just wanted to play.”
Question: Did you come to UK expecting to be a receiver?
Harmon: “When I first came here, I was playing receiver. I was working with LaRod King and Darryl Collins and all the other receivers. Then with the situation with Marcus Caffey (being academically ineligible), coach Phillips talked to me about moving to corner. It was what was best for the team, and I am a team guy. I felt if that was what needed to be done, I would do it. I didn’t have any problem. I went both ways in high school.”
Question: How long did it take you to realize you could play this year at cornerback even as a walk-on?
Harmon: “Probably during (preseason) camp. It wasn’t like everybody had a set position. It was more like you work hard, you earn your position and your dues in the program. I felt like everybody that plays on defense earned that playing time and bought into the program. We outworked each other. We pushed each other to work hard.”
Question: What has the reaction in Paducah been to your success?
Harmon: “Everybody back home is really proud of me. I call them a lot. I still talk to football coach Randy Wyatt every day. I check in with the football team and see how they are doing. They are all proud of me. It’s good.”
Question: How big a role did coach Wyatt play in your career?
Harmon: “He played the biggest role. He was the guy that sat me down and told me I had the potential to be a D-1 athlete. He pushed me harder than any coach I had coming up. He played a big role. I kind of viewed him as a dad. He called me son and I called him dad. If I need somebody to talk to, I can talk to coach Wyatt about. He played in a big role in all of this and I thank him for that.”
Question: Did the fact he played at UK influence you to come to Kentucky at all?
Harmon: “Yeah, and (redshirt freshman linebacker) Josh Forrest of course. I grew up with Josh and playing beside him again had a big impact, too.”
Question: Is it hard at times not being on scholarship or is that no big deal?
Harmon: “It’s no big deal. I am treated as equal as any guy here. There is no favoritism anywhere in the program. We are all seen and viewed equally. It plays no big role at all.”
Question: Did you grow up a Kentucky fan?
Harmon: “No. I kind of grew into a Kentucky fan in high school. In middle school and early high school, college football really did not interest me that much until coach Wyatt told me I had the potential to be a D-1 athlete. I kind of looked at some schools and Kentucky stood out to me early in my career. So I guess I was a Kentucky fan.”
Question: Since you also ran track and played basketball, did you not have a favorite sport growing up?
Harmon: “I started playing football in the second grade and played up with the third graders. I didn’t pick up a basketball until sixth grade. I started running track freshman year and did long jump and triple jump. I didn’t sprint that much. I really wasn’t all that fast until my sophomore year. I worked hard that summer. Junior and senior years I was on relays and won state in triple jump and long jump a couple of times.”
Question: What has the most enjoyable part of this season for you?
Harmon: “What is enjoyable is how we are all staying together. We are still a team. Despite the outcome of the season and how it is going so far, we still have a lot to fight for. The relationship with the older guys is really enjoyable. I look up to all of them. All those guys are like brothers to me. They took us under their wins. The relationship and how the team is staying together is really enjoyable. We are still fighting for the rest of the season and we want to try and finish this out right and send the seniors off with wins.”
Question: What would you say to UK fans worried about the program’s future?
Harmon: “Our team is pretty young, so we have a lot of guys coming back. I feel, and I am pretty sure the rest of the team feels, that with all the guys coming back there is not really a sense we need to rebuild. We are just going to keep building on what we already have. We have played a lot of young guys getting experience we need for next year. I think we are going to have a really bright future ahead of us if we stay on the same task, stay as a team, work hard, push each other. I think next season will be a really big season. We are going to shock the world next season and finish out this season to use as motivation to take us into the next season. It should be good.”