Friday, October 25, 2002

Defensive duo relieved UK back on track

Safety Johnson, LB Riley endured roller coaster ride

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Safety David Johnson and linebacker Ronnie Riley have seen it all at Kentucky.

The fifth-year seniors are the only Wildcats left who played in the 1998 Outback Bowl. That means they've also been around for the back-to-back 2-9 seasons, the unceremonious departure of coach Hal Mumme and the burden of NCAA violations.

The bad experiences, more than the good ones, have made this season's 5-2 start most gratifying.

"To get this far and be this successful feels great," said Riley, fifth on the team with 26 tackles.

They would feel even better with a win Saturday against No. 5 Georgia (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference), which would give the Wildcats their best start since 1984. UK hasn't beaten a top-five team since 1977.

"We're not content. But it sure feels good to finally have some wins under our belts," said Johnson, who leads the team with 47 tackles - 91/2 for losses.

Johnson made a bigger impact than Riley when both were freshmen in 1998, finishing fourth on the team with 53 tackles. Kentucky beat Penn State in the Outback Bowl in 1998 and finished 7-5, its best record in 14 years.

Adversity struck Johnson first. He sustained a cracked eye socket in the second game of 1999, earned a medical redshirt and sat out the season.

"That was the worst year I've had here because I felt like I really couldn't contribute. I couldn't do anything," he said.

Johnson played in every game in 2000, recording 44 tackles. But the Wildcats went 2-9, and Mumme resigned the following February amid allegations of NCAA violations.

Riley calls that season his lowest point, even though he played in every game and set a career high with 23 tackles.

"There were some things going on internally that led to this downward spiral," Riley said. "We just fell apart as a team."

Riley was eager to make amends in 2001 but sustained a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Louisville. He also earned a medical redshirt and turned to friends and family to stay positive.

"The only way you get through those things is through your teammates and through the people you keep around you," Riley said.

Johnson also had injury problems in 2001, struggling with a hamstring pull. He played in seven games, recording 44 tackles.

The Wildcats went 2-9 again, but Riley and Johnson sensed as the season wore on that the program was heading in the right direction under new coach Guy Morriss.

"It was a different 2-9," Johnson said. "We knew we were close to turning it around. The year before, we didn't."

"The winning is a product of what's been going on," Riley said. "We're like a family now, and you have to be a family and be able to work together before you can go out and beat teams. That's what we have.

"There's no dissension. We haven't had an off-the-field problem yet."

Johnson said this season has rekindled his memories of his first year in Lexington.

"It reminds me of when Tim Couch was here," Johnson said. "Everybody was a Kentucky football fan, everybody rooted for us, everybody wanted to see us play. That's how it is again right now.

"It's nice, but we're trying not to pay too much attention to that. We've been through the 2-9 seasons, and we don't want to ever slip back into where we were before."

Morriss said the duo's leadership has been vital to his rebuilding effort.

"They're both playing well, they're both vocal kids, they've both been extremely important," Morriss said. "The kids really respect them, and they follow them. They're the kind of kids you've got to have."

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