When J. D. Harmon decided to play football at UK, he expected to catch a few passes.
He didn’t expect those passes to come from opposing quarterbacks.
Harmon came to UK as a wide receiver, but he moved to cornerback when projected starter Marcus Caffey was deemed academically ineligible before the start of fall camp. On Saturday, he nabbed the first two interceptions of his collegiate career — on back-to-back Missouri offensive plays no less.
“It just feels good to know that hard work pays off,” Harmon said. “Those older guys that take you under their wing, you’ve got to be thankful for them and the coaches for making a decision to play me.”
Harmon also totaled seven tackles against the Tigers. He has 13 tackles and four pass deflections on the season.
J. D. Harmon. (Photo from UK Athletics)
It’s hard enough to earn playing time as a true freshmen for most players, but Harmon’s performance is all the more impressive since he is doing it as a walk-on.
UK head coach Joker Phillips offered Harmon a scholarship as a junior receiver at Paducah Tilghman High School. While Phillips was up front in telling him the scholarship offer was only good for as long as it took UK to fill its 25-man signing class, Harmon chose to hold off committing while he examined all his options.
“I kind of put it off, seeing who was going to offer and whatever, just going through the recruiting process and seeing if I’d maybe get a better offer somewhere or a different school,” Harmon said. “I didn’t really have a dream school. I was just playing ball. Time caught up with me really fast. I waited a little bit too long, but he was honest about it up front, which helped me.”
Harmon received scholarship offers from Western Kentucky and Arkansas State. He also garnered late recruiting interest from Mississippi and Appalachian State. With UK’s signing class full, Phillips offered Harmon the chance to enroll in January as a grayshirt and count against the 2013 class.
“That was an option, but I’m not one of those guys that likes to sit out,” Harmon said. “I felt like I could have been a good help to the team if they needed me.”
Harmon breaks up a pass against Kent State.
(Photo by Jon Hale)
So Harmon chose to pay his own way to UK as a freshman. Since he was a recruited walk-on, he had to turn down academic scholarship money he would have otherwise received to avoid counting against UK’s scholarship limit per NCAA rules.
“For him to do that speaks volumes,” Phillips said.
The plan is for Harmon to go on scholarship beginning next summer. For now he’s focused on closing out his freshman season with a bang.
His opportunity Saturday came almost by accident. When freshman cornerback Cody Quinn limped off the field with a hamstring injury, coaches scrambled to find freshman Fred Tiller to take his spot in the lineup. But Tiller was occupied on the other end of the sideline, leaving Harmon to take Quinn’s place.
“Instead of Tiller getting all those reps, getting that series, J. D. did well enough. He stayed in,” Phillips said. “Played 60-something plays for us, had two interceptions, tackled well, did a really good job for us.”
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Harmon said of his chance insertion into the lineup. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m still out here. I must be doing a good job. I better keep it up, so maybe I’ll stay on a little bit longer.”
Harmon is one of three freshmen seeing extensive playing time at the cornerback positions. If Quinn can’t play Saturday, Harmon could start in his place against Vanderbilt.
“All three of those guys, they have done an outstanding job,” Philips said. “All three of those guys are very talented.”
Nine games into his collegiate career, Harmon says he no longer thinks of himself as a receiver. While he misses lining up on offense at times, he has learned to love playing defense.
And if he can nab a few more interceptions to prove all defensive backs are not just receivers with bad hands, all the better.
“I’ve heard that a lot,” he said. “I used to joke about it when I was in high school with the DBs that didn’t have (good) hands. Now that I’m a DB, I can’t really say that.”