UK wide receiver Matt Roark’s senior season was not going the way that he hoped. With the departure of former UK receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, Roark slid up the depth chart and looked like a vital piece to the Cats’ passing game in 2011. But Roark dropped a slew of passes in UK’s first two games, including a certain touchdown against Central Michigan in week two, and found himself benched in his final game against in-state rival Louisville in week three.
In UK’s five games since, however, Roark has blossomed into a dependable target for the Cats’ quarterbacks junior Morgan Newton and freshman Maxwell Smith. After recording just two catches in the team’s first three games, Roark has 23 catches for 161 yards since, including 13 catches for 116 yards against Mississippi State.
“It says a lot about Matt Roark,” UK head coach Joker Phillips said, “because what he did, he did get yanked in a couple games, but you saw how he responded, and you always want to look how kids are going to respond, because you do things in this business to see how they’re going to respond, too, sometimes.”
The 13 catches are a team high thus far in 2011 and tied for the second most in a single game in UK history along with Cobb’s 13 catches against Tennessee on Nov. 27, 2010. His 116 receiving yards are also a team high for the year, and Roark’s 100-yard performance was the first such game by any Cats pass-catcher since junior wide receiver La’Rod King did it in the Central Michigan game.
“It was kind of a surprise for me to go back in the way I did, I think I started, but it was a shock to me,” Roark said. “(I’m) glad they did it and glad I could prove to them they were right by doing it.”
Roark’s road back was a long one. It began as a member of UK’s special teams units, something the senior has taken pride in doing his entire career. Roark stayed focus and earned his time on special teams, until eventually his number was called again with the offense.
“Matt Roark went into special teams and he’s on every special team,” Phillips said. “You very seldom see a wide receiver that’s on every special team, and he’s one of those guys that went about his business the way he normally does, with full‑speed effort. He prepared himself doing special teams. Then he got the opportunity to go back in the game as a wide receiver and made a few plays for us.”
While Roark was excelling on kick coverage for the Cats, he was working with UK wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Tee Martin to get back on the field. When questions surrounding Roark’s play arose after he was benched for the Louisville game, Martin stood by the senior and said we would see him perform again this season.
Martin called Roark’s issue of holding onto the football a mental problem, explaining that as he got more reps and got his confidence up, we would see the same player that impresses the coaches in practice each week. One month later, and Martin was true to his word.
“It says a lot about Matt,” Phillips said. “It also says a lot about Coach (Tee) Martin and his belief in Matt Roark and (special teams) Coach(Greg) Nord that all these guys that said we’re going to need Matt Roark before the season is over.”
“(Tee) was just getting on me and never stopping,” Roark added. “Some coaches will just be like ‘this guy is done, we’re just going to focus on the younger guys and develop them. He’ll be gone next year so forget about him,’ but he just kept pushing me and pushing me and getting on me and making me push myself more and hold myself more accountable.”
Roark also credits Phillips’ secret punishment for dropping balls in practice as a reason for his improved play.
“The punishment for dropped balls, it helps a lot,” Roark said. “But sometimes, whatever the punishment is, we’ll do that ourselves without it being a punishment. So just doing all that extra catching, a couple hundred balls a day, that always helps.”
The senior later revealed that catching a couple hundred balls after practice was indeed Phillips’ punishment for drops in practice.
Roark reached the pinnacle of his climb back into the passing game Saturday when Smith replaced Newton at quarterback after Newton suffered a right ankle and right shoulder injury in the first quarter. Phillips said Smith made Roark the first read in his progression more than anyone else on the Cats’ offense, leading to Roark’s big day.
“He kept going to the guy that was his first read, and Roark was his first read,” Phillips said of Smith.
Phillips is now holding an open competition at quarterback for UK’s next game against Ole Miss. Should Smith get more chances under center, Roark could become a cornerstone of the passing game for the Cats’ as the team reaches for its remaining goals for the season: to beat Tennessee and reach the program’s sixth straight bowl game.
Roark, like many, has never beaten Tennessee, and has never missed a bowl game in his career. Now back in form, he will look to help end the first streak and continue the second for the Cats.
“I just try and make it a point not to get down on myself,” Roark said. “There’s not a benefit from being down on yourself no matter what it is, so I just try and stay up and people around me try and help me stay up.”