By LARRY VAUGHT
Few Senior Day games end up being really memorable. Sometimes its because the game is not one to remember. Sometimes it’s because no one player is really spectacular. Sometimes a team just isn’t having a season worth remembering.
This year’s Kentucky football Senior Day should be one of those games that will be remembered for many, many reasons that really have nothing to do with the final score — Kentucky 34, Middle Tennessee 23.
Rather than the score, here’s what I will remember:
— First, Josh Paschal. How could it be anything else? The sophomore was expected to be a star for the UK defense this season. He willingly accepted a move from linebacker to the line to make the overall defense better. Then before the season started, it was revealed he had malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot and would need significant recovery time.
Some of us wonder if he might ever play again. Cancer is not an easy foe to beat. Paschal has three surgeries and monthly immunotherapy treatment before he eventually got the okay to start workouts. He missed the first 10 games but coach Mark Stoops not only let him play Saturday, but started him in one of the best coaching moves I’ve ever seen. No, it wasn’t great strategy. It was just a coach being a great person and letting Paschal know how much the coaches and team cared about him.
It was also like a fairy tale when Paschal got a tackle on the third play. It was such an emotional story that Paschal was named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week even though he was in on less than 20 plays.
“Just getting back playing football for Josh with the injury that he had, the lifting and some of the conditioning he can do, like in a pool and on a bike, but on his feet because the surgery was on the bottom of his foot. That is hard,” Stoops said Monday.
Paschal is one of the nicest, most humble athletes you will ever meet. He was baptized during the summer just a few weeks before it was discovered he had cancer. He says his faith helped him through the journey and stayed after the game signing autographs for any fan who wanted one as a way to say thanks for the support he received.
“It made me want to cry, especially when he made his first tackle. He was telling me he was rusty but it is a blessing how far he has came,” running back Benny Snell said.
— Next, Josh Allen. Not only did he break the single-season sacks record, but he also set the career mark with two sacks in his final home game. He could have opted to play in the NFL this season but returned to UK for a senior season that has vaulted him up the NFL draft boards.
He’s been the best defensive player in the SEC this season. However, what makes the story even better is that he had his young son with him for the Cat Walk and then again for the pregame senior ceremony. He readily admits becoming a father changed his life.
“He is going to see the pictures (from Senior Day) and know his dad did something special. I just wanted him to be there with me,” Allen said after the game. “He might end up doing a record and I will be there for him. I do all this every day for him.”
— Third, Mike Edwards. The safety has been the unsung star for the UK defense this year and Saturday he got his 300th career tackle. That’s 3-0-0. He’s only the 19th UK player to ever reach that mark and just the second defensive back to make it to 300 tackles.
If that wasn’t enough, he returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter. And don’t forget on the second series he forced a fumble.
He’s had an amazing career and been remarkably durable for the plays he’s made and hits he has taken and delivered.
“One of the better players in the league. Just really consistent player. He’s been very reliable,” UK coach Mark Stoops said.
Edwards acknowledged it was a big accomplishment reaching 300 tackles but then thanked current and former teammates who helped him reach that goal. That’s called class.
— Fourth, Benny Snell. If this was his final game in Kroger Field as even Stoops suggested it would be, he went out the way he should have — with another 100-yard rushing game and two more rushing touchdowns. He needs 207 yards in UK’s next two games to break the rushing record of 3,835 career yards set by Sonny Collins from 1972-75. He’s already the only SEC player other than Herschel Walker to have 1,000 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his first there seasons and 44 career rushing touchdowns before his senior season. He now has more rushing touchdowns than Bo Jackson and will go to fourth on the all-time SEC rushing touchdown list with his next score.
“I still got goals and things I’m trying to reach. I’m not too far off,” Snell said.
Stoops didn’t say for sure Snell would leave for the NFL. But Snell basically did even if he might not have meant to with this quote.
“Every senior had a critical moment in the game. The defensive guys making tackles, Mike with the pick, Josh with the sacks, my offensive line. Everyone came together and I’m glad we got to leave on a note like that,” Snell said.
Emphasis here on “we got to leave on a note like that.”
He also reminisced on what he hopes his legacy — and his senior teammates’ legacy — will be.
“This team’s legacy, these seniors can say they played their ass off. When the ball is kicked off, they fight to the end. That’s what I want my legacy to be,” Snell said.
Don’t worry. It will be.
— Fifth, Jordan Jones. Count me as one who was not sure Jones would make it to Senior Day. His talent was never the question. He’s a big-time playmaker. His issue was his demeanor and how easily he lost his composure.
Give Stoops credit for never giving up on his star linebacker. I know, it’s easier to give a star player more chances. But Jones tested Stoops’ patience time after time. Almost every time it was because his passion got the best of him and led to losing his cool on the field or blowing assignments trying to make hero plays.
Stoops likes to say Jones is “week to week” and the two often have one-on-one conversations. However, Jones has been a near model player on and off the field this season after imploding in last year’s home loss to Louisville that was an embarrassment to UK fans.
“That wasn’t a very good moment for any of us, but we’ve all learned from it, and sometimes it’s a lot easier on me to just dismiss somebody. Everybody thinks that’s tough, and that’s discipline. No, that’s the easy thing to do,” Stoops said Monday. “The hard thing to do is to continue to work with him every day and help him and not give up on him and not quit on him, so very pleased with his effort.”
Stoops should be and on a day filled with great memories, Jones playing the right way and getting to celebrate a win and historic season with his teammates was easy to overlook but should not be because it was as special as what Paschal, Edwards, Allen, Snell or anyone else did — just in a different way.