When asked about Kentucky’s junior varsity football team, the cornerback simply couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept.
“You’re talking about college?” Oliver asked. “I’ve never heard of that before. A college? They have a JV team? I don’t know about that.”
It’s not so much a full-fledged team, but, it’s true. In three of head coach Rich Brooks’ four seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats have played one junior varsity game. Still, it’s easy to see how it could have slipped past Oliver.
Kentucky, the Bulldogs’ opponent Saturday, is the only school in the Southeastern Conference, and one of only three BCS conference schools in the country, along with West Virginia and Virginia Tech, that still fields a junior varsity squad.
“Is that right?” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
Richt had hoped to start a junior varsity when he arrived in Athens in 2001, he said. In fact, he started a movement to get the NCAA to change its rule to allow players who are redshirting to play junior varsity without losing any eligibility. However, that plan was swallowed up by a larger movement to add a fifth year of eligibility throughout college football, and neither measure was passed.
Without using redshirt players or getting a fifth year of eligibility for all players, “we can’t do it,” Richt said. Georgia had a junior varsity game scheduled against GMC three years ago, but Richt had to call it off because he couldn’t scrape together enough players to field a team, he said.
(The last UGA junior varsity game was in 1993, when the 60-year tradition of the Bulldog and Georgia Tech junior varsity teams playing on Thanksgiving Day ended.)
For 65-year-old Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, whose career spans back to when junior varsity squads were the norm, the extra effort to find enough bodies is worth it.
“It is hard, and we sometimes have not fielded a very good team,” Brooks said. “It’s a chore just to figure out whether you have enough people.”
The Wildcats played just 33 players in a 49-14 junior varsity victory over Hargrave Military Academy on Oct. 20, and many of them had to play both offense and defense.
“It’s kind of a throwback game,” Brooks said.
With players who are redshirting off limits for junior varsity squads, Kentucky is left with veteran walk-ons who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to play in a real game or young players so far down the depth chart they don’t see enough action to stay fresh.
Kentucky quarterback Rocco Maragas is in the first group. The senior walk-on has played in one varsity game and that was in 2003.
“I thought (junior varsity) was a thing of the past, but when they told me about it, I thought it was an awesome idea,” said Maragas, who led last month’s victory. “We really enjoy it as players. A lot of us, it’s the first time since high school we’ve played in a real game.”
For others, it’s the warm-up for varsity action. Redshirt freshman running back Antoine Brown may play against Georgia due to the Wildcats’ mounting injuries at his position. Rather than being completely untested, the fourth-team tailback is coming off a 205-yard rushing effort against Hargrave.
“Obviously, we have a lot more confidence putting him into that (varsity) situation now,” Brooks said. “It just builds their confidence, and it builds the coaches’ confidence in them.”
“It was just a chance to show the coaches that I was able to do some good things in a game to show that I could play on the varsity level,” Brown said. “The coaches said before the game that this was to show them something to evaluate.”
The games help with more than just Kentucky’s current team, Brooks said. The Wildcats use their junior varsity team to boost recruiting by developing good relationships with prep schools and junior colleges and getting an opportunity to evaluate some of their opponents’ players first-hand.
“You’ve got a chance to play against them and judge them against some players you already have,” Brooks said.
Richt will consider going back to the NCAA this offseason to ask for a rule change that would allow the Bulldogs to field a JV team, he said.
“There’s going to be a percentage of your kids who are not being redshirted who need to play,” he said. “How much better would (backup center) Ian Smith be getting if he got to play some games? There are a bunch of them like that. I would love to be able to do that.”
Kentucky by the numbers
Rushing 106th 82.8 ypg
Rushing defense 109th 185.9 ypg allowed
Passing 22nd 249.1 ypg
Passing defense 115th 269.8 ypg allowed
Scoring 69th 22.9 ppg
Scoring defense 102nd 30.8 ppg allowed