HOOVER, Ala. – The question comes from concerned parents all the time: Can my son play high-level football and get a real education, in a real major, at the same time?
“In recruiting, it comes up a bunch,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “It’s extremely difficult. But it’s great to say, ‘Hey, talk to Jon Toth. He’s able to do that.’”
Toth is a 6-foot-5, 310-pound senior center who has started 35 consecutive games for the Wildcats. He’s rated the No. 8 prospect available at his position in 2017 by NFLDraftScout.com. This is his second time on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s top center.
He has also made the SEC Academic Honor Roll three times while pursuing an engineering degree.
“That’s a complete myth” that elite football players can’t compete at a high level in the classroom, too. “I talk to recruits all the time, just them asking me questions about what it’s like, and it’s rough, especially those middle two years. It’s a grind, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, it’s completely doable.”
Let’s not pretend Toth is typical, though, not even among the general student population. He tries to be in bed by 9 p.m. most nights so that he can wake up at 5 a.m. each day – giving himself two hours to eat, hydrate and “be prepared to give it my all.”
When he walks into engineering classes, Toth feels “not a dumb jock thing” from his professors initially, but “they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s cool a football player is in my class.’”
It doesn’t take long for them to realize he’s a serious student. This spring and summer, Toth has worked with two different professors on research projects to get hands-on experience in his future field. (He hopes to enjoy a stop in the NFL first.)
In tweaking the design of a “tow tank,” he dealt with “a force-sensing system that will capture the forces on the object and then relay that to the computer so that you can kind of get a sense of the forces acting on the object,” Toth said, whatever that means. He’s currently helping another of his teachers on a noise-reduction design.
“He’s an incredible guy,” Stoops said. “Very quiet, but he does his work. He’s really amazing … an engineering major, but he’s constantly around our building. He makes it look easy. You know, it’s very difficult for these players. They get pulled a lot of directions, they have a lot to do, a lot of responsibilities with their classes and their workouts, but he seems to do it very easy.”
It’s true that Toth doesn’t say much – and screams even less – but he is nevertheless a leader in Kentucky’s locker room. Stoops talked a lot Wednesday about changing the Wildcats’ culture, and Toth is the template for doing things just right.
“You’ve got to be able to lead yourself before you can lead anyone else,” Toth said. “Most people think leading is getting in someone’s face (but) you can take an alternate route.”
In taking the academic road less traveled, Toth has quietly turned his teammates’ heads. Even senior running back Jojo Kemp, who has rushed for 1,360 yards in his UK career, is learning from him.
“That’s the guys you need to look up to,” Kemp said. “That tells you there’s no excuses. You come to college, you get your education and you play football. There’s no excuses. You see somebody like Jon Toth getting it done, all it does is motivate the younger guys and guys like myself.”
As the anchor of Kentucky’s offensive line, which should be the best in Stoops’ four seasons at the helm, Toth now hopes to help finish off one more engineering project: rewiring the Wildcats for success. They’ve gone 5-7 each of the last two seasons – after consecutive 2-10 marks – and believe now is the time to break through to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
“Coach Stoops has laid a great foundation that we’ve been able to build off of since he’s been here,” Toth said, “and we’re looking forward to putting it all together this year.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.