LEXINGTON, Ky. — There was a time, early in preseason camp, that Kentucky’s coaching staff wasn’t sure when wide receiver Kayaune Ross might be able to help the team.
He played just four junior-college games in 2014 before suffering an injury, then sat out all of last season at Phoenix (Ariz.) College. All that time away meant when the Wildcats got him this summer, Ross was rusty, raw, all of those words that mean “not ready to play major college football.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said on Aug. 9 that Ross looked “lost” and wondered whether it might take half a season to get him up to speed. Gran loved Ross’ size and potential, but he needed to see more. And then the scrimmages started.
Ross caught three touchdowns and stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line on another big play or it would’ve been four — in Kentucky’s first two game simulations of the preseason. Those were closed to the media, but he claims scoring plays of 40-plus and 60-plus yards.
“Once I’m on the field, get the ball in my hands,” he said. “I obviously got to show what I can do. It was just great getting out there and being able to catch the ball, break a couple tackles and score; catch the ball again, break a couple tackles and score.
“I believe that I made it kind of to the point where you’re going to have to play me.”
Even with a wide receiving corps that returned every significant contributor from 2015 and has two other promising newcomers, Ross is right. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound specimen nicknamed “Godzilla” by position coach Lamar Thomas has bullied his way up the depth chart.
When the Wildcats open the season Saturday night against Southern Miss, whose starting cornerbacks are both 5-11 and around 180 pounds, don’t be surprised to see Ross get a shot.
“After certain scrimmages, after certain practices, we simply said, ‘He has to play. We’ll teach him the rest,’” coach Mark Stoops said. “He is behind some of the (veteran players), but he’s a big, athletic target and we have been very impressed with him. I think you’re going to really see him make strides throughout the season, and you will see him during the first game I would anticipate.
“We do have some depth, but he is a difference-maker.”
When Ross makes his first big play for the Wildcats, it might be an emotional moment. His journey from West Chester, Ohio — where he played high school ball with UK’s Kyle Meadows, Mikel Horton and George Asafo-Adjei — to Lexington has been a long one.
Upon seeing the Cats’ new $45 million training center this summer, Ross sat in his high-tech locker stall and cried.
“It was very overwhelming, especially coming from where I came from,” he said. “Seeing something like this, that was built for us, and seeing so many people put their time and money and energy into it, it was just like, ‘We’re doing all of this for you guys to succeed.’ We’re just going to do whatever we can to pay them back and really get this season going the right way.
“It’s something that I take very seriously. I don’t take it for granted. I’m just very appreciative right now.”
Kentucky is pretty happy to have Ross, too. Except maybe starting strong safety Mike Edwards, who earned Internet infamy for a clip of Ross throwing him like a rag doll and then catching a touchdown pass during summer workouts.
Quarterback Drew Barker can’t wait to utilize that massive target in the red zone.
“He’s a beast,” Barker said. “I haven’t really seen a receiver like him … and the thing with Kayaune (pronounced KAY-waun) is he can really run, too. I know in the scrimmage, we had a touchdown to him and he had like a 30-yard run after the catch and no one caught him.”
It’s that sheer size, though, that makes Ross stand out. Thomas, a former star wide receiver at Miami, gives a lot of his receivers nicknames because he’s bad at remembering their actual names — and Ross’ was the easiest to pick.
“I call him Godzilla, because when I first saw him, I was just amazed,” Thomas said. “He was just so physical. The kid’s put together, now, (and) he’s been coming along in the last week or so. The light is going on.”
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