By JEFFREY McMURRAY
Associated Press Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Until Derrick Locke set an Oklahoma high school record with the best long jump in the country this year, he wasn't on the radar of Kentucky's track coaches, let alone football coach Rich Brooks.
"I just saw it in the paper," said James Thomas, UK's track assistant who coaches jumpers. "He kind of popped up. I'd never heard the name. As a coach, you kind of get upset. How'd I miss out on this guy?"
So, Thomas made a desperation courtesy call to Locke's high school coach in Hugo, Okla., to inquire about his availability. He figured he had no chance to lure the under-the-radar star to Kentucky. Surely Locke had already committed to a big-time program or was academically ineligible to attend one.
As it turned out, Locke's grades were fine, and while many of the nation's track powerhouses had indeed come knocking, none of them could offer what he demanded. Besides jumping and sprinting in track meets, he wanted to have a chance to play football - as a freshman and as a running back.
"That's my position," said Locke, whose high school football numbers also were eye-popping: 51 total TDs and more than 3,000 yards. "I felt like I needed to get a shot at my position. I honestly didn't think that what I'd done in high school was so bad I couldn't get a shot."
Barring that, he planned to attend a junior college to earn his football stripes, then transfer in two years.
Thomas put Locke on a plane to Lexington, where he sat down with Brooks. The Wildcats football coach was straight with him. The program, coming off its first bowl victory in 22 years, was loaded with running backs, including Rafael Little, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith. It was a longshot that he would play immediately other than special teams, but a shot nonetheless.
"I felt like they were the only one that was going to be honest about it," Locke said. "Coach Brooks, he just told me, 'Come here and we'll try. I'm not going to make any promises."'
Locke enlisted, and injuries to the three above him on the depth chart have him poised to possibly lead the team in carries this week when the No. 14 Wildcats (6-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) host Mississippi State.
After breakout performances subbing for injured players in wins over Arkansas and LSU, Locke is third on the team with 351 yards rushing and tied for first with three TDs.
"Derrick Locke has responded in a manner more of a junior or senior and hasn't been weak of heart, mind or spirit," Brooks said. "Without him performing like he has, we wouldn't be where we are."
Although it's not unprecedented for a track star to be a running back, Thomas says the transition to cornerback or wide receiver is far easier, particularly at the SEC level. Those positions are more about pure speed, whereas running backs have to survive brutal hits at the line before turning on the speed.
That may have scared off some big programs, figuring a jumper doesn't translate well into a rusher. Locke insists those doubters were mistaken.
"Football speed and track speed are two different speeds," Locke said. "Just because you're fast doesn't mean you're quick. There's a lot of contact. It's rough. It's a hard sport, not for everybody. If they knew anything about me, they'd know I rushed for 3,000 yards. That didn't come from rushing from the outside."
Wildcats running backs coach Larry Brinson says when Locke is on the practice field, he often forgets about his track pedigree.
"The thing that makes him different is his speed and his explosion," Brinson said. "He's very, very quick. You hand him the ball and he's like a bullet. He jets out there, and that's the thing that sets him apart."
Although Locke is the only one of the top four Kentucky running backs who hasn't been out with a serious injury, he understands the workout regimen won't be getting any easier - even when the season ends. Thomas says he'll be in shape for track and field in the spring, although perhaps not the same kind of shape as the other runners and jumpers.
"Preparing for football, you're preparing your body to take a pounding," Thomas said. "Preparing for track, you're preparing your body to be as efficient and fast as it can be in the shortest amount of time."