One clear positive for the Kentucky football team in an otherwise dreary loss to Louisville at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night was the emergence of junior E.J. Fields, who made his first career reception and later scored his first career touchdown.
The Frankfort native, whose progress was slowed during his first three years at UK by injuries, was in good health and a good help for a wide receiving corps that has been plagued by drops and inconsistency.
"It felt really good to finally get my opportunity to play, make some plays on third down, score a touchdown, but it's still a bit bittersweet not being able to come up with the win," he said.
Fields made seven catches for 57 yards, including a 2-yard, fourth-quarter TD that pulled UK within 24-17.
That play came on a high, corner fade pass from Newton, and Fields outran his defender made an-over-the-shoulder grab.
"The touchdown felt great. I've seen that play in my head a million times," Fields said. "I've practiced that play a million times, so actually being able to do it in front of the fans felt really good."
Fields, a 6-foot-1, 196-pound player, was a high-speed running quarterback and track star at Frankfort High School signed with UK in 2008 with the promise of using his speed to become a big-play wide receiver.
But he tore a hamstring during fall camp of his freshman year, which limited his practice time and led to a redshirt.
The next August, he suffered a so-called Lisfranc foot injury, which involved torn ligaments in his mid-foot and required surgery. That injury kept him on crutches for two months and off the football field his entire second season.
Last year, as a third-year sophomore, he appeared in 11 games, all on special teams.
"The foot was a long recovery," Fields said. "I could honestly say that I probably just started feeling back to 100 percent this (past) spring.
"It was a very long recovery for that. I've just been praying every night, knowing that I'd get my chance and that I needed to be ready when my time came."
He was suspended for this year's season opener against Western Kentucky as a carryover penalty for an undisclosed violation of team rules that happened last year.
His first week of significant first-team practice reps came before the Louisville game, and he delivered.
Starting UK wide receiver Gene McCaskill dropped a pass and injured his back early in Saturday's game, increasing Fields' role in the offense.
The first catch of his UK career came on a 14-yard play late in the first quarter of Saturday's game.
"It's been a very long time coming," Fields said. "Getting over the injuries was one of the biggest things. I was just really thankful to be able to recover from those injuries and still really be full speed. Just waiting for my opportunity was a big thing."
All of Fields' receptions other than the touchdown resulted in a first down for UK, including five that came on third downs.
The drive-sustaining catches were key to UK remaining within striking distance of U of L, and his sure hands were a sharp contrast to the blatant drops and fumbles that have plagued Matt Roark, King, McCaskill, Brian Adams and Demarco Robinson so far.
"He went in, took advantage of the opportunity that was given to him, did what receivers are supposed to do, which is catch the football," coach Joker Phillips said at his Monday news conference. "... He got a chance to play and took advantage of it.? He'll get even more of an opportunity this week."
When Fields is healthy, his speed is a weapon for the Cats, wide receivers coach Tee Martin said.
"E.J. was a positive (against Louisville), and I'm happy for him," Martin said. "He got off to a positive start, and it got him some confidence he could go out there and do it. He got him a touchdown. He got his first reception in a game. I'm happy for him, and more so that we have somebody else who has stepped up and made some plays in a game and we can say, 'Hey, this is a guy that we can get the ball to some.'
"... He can run. He's been here, so he knows where to go. He can play multiple positions. It was just good to see him. I moved him around from outside to inside, and he did a good job."
Fields said four years of injuries and minimal playing time was frustrating, but he made the most of his opportunities on special teams and took heed in the advice and encouragement he got from friends and family back in Frankfort.
He said Martin, in his second year at UK, has remained committed to helping him improve and pushing him to make the rotation.
"Coach Tee has said nothing but good things, motivating things," Fields said. "He really believed in me and always told me to stay ready, be ready because he really believed in my ability. I knew my time would come. He knew my time would come, so it was really up to me to just capitalize on my opportunity." ?