Mark Crawford earns first start

The education of junior defensive tackle Mark Crawford didn’t begin in earnest until well after high school. As a senior at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, he drew recruiting attention from nearly every school in the Big Ten. But he was academically ineligible, and had to take a detour to the most unlikely of places.

Crawford enrolled in Coffeyville Community College in Coffeyville, Kan., a town with a population of just over 10,000. It’s a respected junior college football program that has produced NFL talent like Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, but outside of football, Crawford had trouble adjusting to life in Coffeyville.

“(There’s) literally nothing else to do,” he said. “And if you didn’t have a TV, you were in trouble.”

After two years in junior college and leading the team in sacks in 2008, he had become academically eligible. When he left Coffeyville as a noted college prospect, he took with him more than just what he had learned in the classroom.

“Being in Coffeyville, Kan., alone is like a nightmare,” Crawford said. “There are great coaches there and a great junior college football program, but socially it’s just horrible. Coming from there to here makes you appreciate a new pair of gloves or appreciate when the managers wash your clothes or appreciate a new pair of cleats.”

Crawford was one of the Cats’ top reserves at defensive tackles last season, appearing in all 13 games and finishing with 15 tackles on the year, though he didn’t have any sacks or tackles for loss. Still, he was in the mix to start at defensive tackle alongside returning starter Ricky Lumpkin, and the job appeared to be his for the taking when redshirt freshman Mister Cobble failed to qualify academically.

Instead, the coaches named junior walk-on Luke McDermott as the starter to open the season at Louisville. Things got worse for Crawford after the opener, when he was suspended for UK’s second game for an unspecified violation of team rules. It was another lesson for him as he missed a full week with his teammates.

“Being suspended, you don’t even really get to practice,” he said. “You’re in practice, but you don’t get to practice, so you just look at it. You don’t get to go to the game, so I was on the couch watching TV. And I’m like, ‘Why am I on my couch watching TV? I need to be out there with those guys making plays.’ I think it was somewhat of a reality check. I don’t want to be on the couch watching my team.”

But he bounced back from that, registering his first career sack and 1.5 tackles for loss against Akron the next week. Against Ole Miss, he continued to elevate his play, finishing with another sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. His play the last two weeks has vaulted him over McDermott, and he’ll make his first career start this weekend against Auburn.

McDermott will still likely see significant time, and has three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss of his own this season, though he failed to register a tackle against Ole Miss. UK head coach Joker Phillips said he’s seen Crawford take a leadership role in the weeks following his suspension.

“I think it’s hard to lead when you get suspended, it has to wear off a little bit,” Phillips said. “His suspension has worn off and been put behind him. Every week we’ve seen Mark become more of a leader. Plays aggressive, plays with a motor … We feel Mark deserves a chance to start the game.”

It’s hard not to notice Crawford’s physical style on the field and his emotional play. That translates to his leadership role, where he’s become more vocal recently. The next time he celebrates a sack or a big play, he’ll be thinking about everything that’s happened to him to lead to that point.

“It’s always been a part of it, just from all the issues maybe in class or practice or my personal life,” Crawford said. “I go out there on that field and that’s the place I can hit somebody and not get in trouble. I try to turn a lot of that energy on the offensive line or the quarterback and let it go.”