No one was happier to see the start of Kentucky’s preseason training camp than cornerback J.D. Harmon of Paducah.
He was one of the feel-good stories from then coach Joker Phillips final season in 2012 when UK went 2-10. Not only did he get to play in all 12 games in the 2-10 season, but he started the final three games. He led the team in interceptions (two) and tied for second in pass breakups (four). He had 24 tackles, including seven at Missouri.
Not bad for a player that came to UK as a walk-on despite his stellar career at Paducah Tilghman. However, instead of following that 2012 performance with a solid 2013, Harmon was academically ineligible. But rather than write him off, new coach Mark Stoops gave Harmon a redshirt year and kept him on the team.
“I appreciate having a second chance a lot,” said Harmon. “Often times you really don’t get a second chance. I want to thank coach Stoops for letting me to come back and get on the field and practice. Even though I used my redshirt year which was initially the plan, bringing me back in for camp last fall and letting me practice and work with the scout team with the receivers and giving them the best look I could was amazing and I really do appreciate that a lot because he didn’t have to do it.”
Harmon knew he had no one but himself to blame for his problems, too.
“I have been really hard on myself. It was my fault. I kind of lost track of my priorities and now I understand that school comes first and that’s where I am,” he said.
Harmon’s high school coach is Randy Wyatt, a former UK player. He immediately advised Harmon not to blame anyone but himself for not being able to play last year.
“The kid is plenty smart. He is willing to fix it and get his grades right. I know he can do it, too,” Wyatt said when he found out about Harmon being ineligible. “Sometimes as a freshman you get caught up in things, and that’s what happened to him. Now I just want to do what it takes to make sure my kid gets in the right place for him and his education.
“It’s one of those unfortunate things. He never had a problem of any kind in high school. He’s a good kid. He just did not have his priorities straight. We had a long conversation and told him he had to understand college football is business first. He’s got to understand if UK does not want him back, he can’t be mad at UK. He has to look first at himself in the mirror. He can’t point fingers. He should never have been in this situation where he had to struggle to get eligible.”
Harmon understood why Wyatt showed him little sympathy.
“It is always good for me with him. We are pretty close. Coach Wyatt is like a dad to me. Our relationship has grown close over years. I had him for football and track,” Harmon said. “Coming from him, it (the criticism) was like coming from my dad. ‘You screwed up, this is where you are, you have to be a man and fix it. This is the only way out.’ He gave me option to see I could quit or fight to get myself back in it. That’s kind of the route we took
“It was extremely hard. I could see my mom’s face just telling her over the phone and could hear over the phone she was extremely upset with the news that I couldn’t play. My friends were extremely upset about it, coach Wyatt, the coaches … I understand. It was my fault and I had to get myself out of it.”
He was used to success. He played on a state championship football team at Tilghman with current Wildcat linebacker Josh Forrest. He had 11 interceptions and scored 32 touchdowns his senior year. In track, he won the long jump and triple jump both his junior and senior years. He also played basketball four years.
He thinks being a high school receiver helps him at cornerback.
“I can tell when a receiver is about to break and when he is ready to go,” said Harmon, who had two interceptions against Missouri in 2012, said. “Coming from receiver to where I am now, I have an advantage knowing what he will do
“The Missouri game (last year) was one of those games. They were throwing the ball and I was like if I was out there I could catch that play or help the team with this. Just little plays every now and then that I harped on and I could have helped the team a lot made it hard to just watch last season.”
Harmon knows taking off a year will make him have to prove to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot that he belongs on the field.
“It is a competition. We are competing for positions. Nobody has a set position. We are rolling in different guys and doing different things. It is fun. I like competition,” he said. “Anything to help the team. I am a team guy. We have a motto be all in. If my role is to be special teams guy, then I will be a special teams guy. I would have no problem with that at all.”
Harmon hopes he can return and make a meaningful contribution to the team not only for himself, but possibly to show others how to take advantage of a second chance.
“If there is one thing I could take from my situation to pass on to somebody else it would be in life you are going to screw up, but when you get a second chance, take hold of it,” he said. “That third chance is slim to none. The second chance is very slim. The third one might not come. When you get that second chance you have to take it, roll with it and be on top of your game. That’s what I am going to do.”