Why Kentucky football needs special-teams threat Barion Brown to become weapon at receiver

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — They stopped kicking to Barion Brown

Kentucky’s freshman wide receiver used to return kickoffs for touchdowns with some regularity, he said, in the early days of his high school career at Pearl-Cohn in Nashville. 

But by his junior year, Brown said, opponents who couldn’t kick the ball out of the end zone would aim it toward Pearl-Cohn’s return man on the opposite side of the field. Or kick it short to the front line of the return team.

“But as far as me touching the ball? Nah. They didn't let me touch the ball,” Brown said this week. “Same thing on punt returns. Punt returns, the ball was going out of bounds.” 

After Saturday, it’s easy to see why.

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Miami (Ohio) kicked off to Brown to open the second half of the Wildcats’ season opener, and he made the Redhawks pay, running it back 100 yards for a touchdown that helped break open a close game and spur No. 20 UK to a 37-13 win

And Brown didn’t just make the most of his shot. He called it. 

Teammates confirmed Brown’s postgame claim that, upon learning last week Kentucky hadn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown under coach Mark Stoops, he vowed to do it against the RedHawks. 

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The prediction doesn’t surprise Andre Davis, an assistant football coach at Pearl-Cohn who also coached Brown on the track team. 

Neither did the result. 

“I’ve seen him do some things that were like, ‘Whoa,’ Davis said. “Like, jaw-dropping.” 

Kentucky’s Barion Brown celebrates with teammate Jeremy Flax after scoring a touchdown against Miami (Ohio).
Sept. 3, 2022

Like sweeping the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dash titles in the spring’s Class A Tennessee state track meet — then anchoring the 4x200 meter relay with a dazzling come-from-behind burst to seal the win.  

Or running 93 yards for a touchdown last fall — while playing quarterback for Pearl-Cohn in a wildcat formation. 

If the 6-foot-1, 166-pound Brown wanted to play defensive back, Davis said, “he could flip over and probably be one of the best corners in the SEC.” If he gave up football and focused his training and nutrition regimen on track, Davis said, “he could be world-class, definitely.”

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So Davis isn’t surprised to learn that scouting site Recruiting Analytics clocked Brown at 22 miles per hour — the fastest run by any player measured in Week 1 — on his kickoff return Saturday. 

“You say 22 miles per hour; I say he probably went fast enough just to beat them,” Davis said. “If somebody had gotten a little bit closer, he might have had another gear. I don’t know. But I’ve never seen him not step his game up and go to that next level.”

Davis has seen that as a kick returner and a track star. And he’s seen it as a receiver.

That last part is critical. 

Because despite his fantastic first impression in the return game, Brown’s opportunities figure to be limited there. SEC opponents — like Florida, which hosts UK on Saturday in Gainesville, Florida — routinely will kick the ball through the end zone and take returns off the table. 

“Some of these guys we play, they're not going to get a chance to put the ball in his hands,” Stoops said. “Or it’s going to be hung so high that coverage is brutal.”

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That means making use of what quarterback Will Levis called Brown’s full “Swiss Army Knife of abilities” will require getting him the ball as a wide receiver. Levis called Brown’s speed “elite” and said the goal is to “put him in situations to show that off more often.”

Kentucky wide receiver Barion Brown (2) runs a route during the Kentucky Football Fan Day open practice on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, at Joe Craft Football Training Center in Lexington, Kentucky.

For all his versatility, Brown built his prep rep as a receiver. And though it’ll take time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game, he’s off to a solid start. 

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He caught three passes for 45 yards in the opener and has made a habit of hitting up veteran transfer Tayvion Robinson — who played three seasons at Virginia Tech — for tips on the position’s finer points.

“Honestly, Tayvion's like a big brother: 'Oh, you ran this route wrong. You can do this better,’” Brown said. “He always coaches me up.”

Brown attached himself to veteran players as a youngster in high school, too, Davis said, picking the brains of senior teammates, then continuing to train with them in the offseason after they went on to college ball. 

“He’s like a sponge,” Davis said. “He loves to grow. He loves that knowledge of the game.”

And though Brown admits he has more to learn, he has faith in his game as is, describing himself as “not cocky, but more than confident.”

“I hope people don’t take me just as a kick returner, because it ain’t that,” Brown said. “But they’ll see very soon that I do it all.”

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They’ve already gotten a glimpse of his impact as a returner. 

But they might not see it much more. 

At Pearl-Cohn, Davis said, teams “gave up a lot of yards” in exchange for kicking the ball away from Brown. Some even took penalties to boot kicks out of bounds rather than let them land in Brown’s hands. 

In time, Kentucky can involve Brown more in the offense. But if that high school history holds, collegiate opponents will stop giving him chances on special teams. 

“I hope not, but they better,” Brown said. “I advise them not to kick it to me. But if they do, they’re going on SportsCenter Top 10.”

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson and bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.