If they give a comeback player-of-the-year award for the Kentucky football team this season, senior wideout Matt Roark has to be one of the favorites to win it.
Saturday, he returns to his home state of Georgia, to play at the University of Georgia's famed Sanford Stadium, as the second-leading receiver for the Kentucky Wildcats. But back in September, the odds on ever seeing the phrase "second-leading receiver" seemed like a longshot.
"Strong kid, mentally strong," said Roark's position coach, Tee Martin. "He had some tough times early on, being a quarterback moved to another position. Then, first couple of years not playing a lot. Then, your senior year, we need to depend on you and you get off to a bad start. We sat him for a game, to see how much he wanted it. We always said we're going to need him and now he's playing the way he hoped he would play this year."
After repeated drops in the passing game, Roark may have lost some confidence but he didn't let it affect the rest of this game. Head coach Joker Phillips took notice of how hard Roark still played in various special teams roles. Then, when freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith had his breakout games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, utilizing some of the crossing routes that UK had not been calling previously, Roark started to get open and make plays, catching 13 balls in those two games.
"I haven't changed anything physically, it's just focusing more. I did everything I could do. I don't even think about assignments or things like that anymore. I just play," Roark said.
"It just feels good to be a player on the team that is stepping up and playing good for the team. Everyone is congratulating me and all that stuff, but it feels good to be one of the main guys now," he added.
Did he ever lose his sense of self-confidence?
"It was tough. I have always been real hard on myself but it feels like I have done the necessary things to overcome the hard times that I have had. I did get down a little bit but I didn't get too down to think that I would not overcome it," answered Roark, adding the fact that his coaches kept the faith bouyed his spirits.
"They just kept throwing me in. I would mess up and they kept throwing me in the game and then, they would take me out for that game but then the next week starts a new week and they would start me from scratch and let me do it all over again and try to prove them right," he said.
Martin had a history with Roark, having coached him in high school ball in Acworth, GA, just outside of Atlanta. And Martin thinks that connection helped him get Roark through those tough times earlier this fall.
"I think so, because he knew it was a tough love deal. I'm going to kick and scream and do whatever I have to do to get to him. In high school, he was my quarterback and I had to handle him a little differently. He knows that I care about him and at the end of the day, I'm trying to get him to do his best for the team. I'm like that with all my guys," said Martin. "I care about my guys and I'm going to stand behind them. As their coach, I have to help them and not criticize them. I have to be the one giving them confidence when they don't have confidence. When they're going through tough times, you feel it, too."
"It helped me that I knew him so well," noted Roark. "I knew what kind of guy he was and what kind of guy he would be when I got here, so I prepared myself for that and it worked out well because he came in here exactly how I expected he would and he was tough on us but at the same time he was real cool with us. He will joke around with us but then, don't mess around with him because he will get real tough."
Long before he emerged as a playmaker in the passing game, Roark was making good things happen on special teams, whether it be making tackles or blocking kicks.
"I really enjoy special teams. It was the most fulfilling part for me here until recently. I take a lot of pride because it takes a lot of character because a lot of people don't think it's important or hard to buy in on special teams scheme, but that shows a lot of toughness and a lot of other things," Roark said.
And he has tied the school record for blocking kicks.
"It's a technique. Other than my length and ability to jump, I just count to 'two Mississippi' and jump because I know where the ball needs to be," he continued. "Another technique is to have a D-lineman in front of me, I get real close and I expect him to drive the O-lineman back so I scoot up gradually as they are pushing so I can get closer to that ball."
And now he returns home to play against the school that did not offer a scholarship.
"I know a lot of people who go to Georgia, and they will probably be at the game, so I hope I have a big game so they can see it, but I was never bitter towards Georgia for not offering me," Roark said. "I was never a big fan or anything because I never really got into it."