One of the last memories Braylon Heard had of his time at Nebraska was a 9-yard touchdown run in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. He took the handoff, sprinted to the opposite side of the field and left the defense in the dust as he waltzed into the end zone.
It was a play that likely won’t register with Cornhuskers fans as their team trailed Wisconsin 63-17 at the time, but it’s a play that will stay with Heard because not only did he score, but it also turned out to be one of his final carries in a Nebraska uniform.
Heard rushed for 462 yards and four touchdowns during his first two seasons in Lincoln. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore, but he found himself stuck behind Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah on the depth chart. He believed it was in his best interest to transfer, as he needed a fresh start.
At the same time Heard was trying to rejuvenate his career, first-year head coach Mark Stoops was looking to rejuvenate a Kentucky football program that had just two conference victories in 2011. It was the perfect match.
“At Kentucky, I just saw a great opportunity, and it was closer to home,” Heard said.
The Youngstown, Ohio, native played his high school ball at Cardinal Mooney, the same school that Stoops and fellow Kentucky assistant coach Vince Marrow attended back in the day. At Kentucky, he's close enough to home that his mother can drive to games instead of flying.
The only downside to the transfer was that Heard had to sit out a full season before he could suit up in a game for the Wildcats.
“It wasn't too bad because I knew the next year I would be out there with the guys,” he said. “Any guy sitting out is a little frustrated watching the games and everything, but you've got to keep a level head and know that your time will come next year.”
Heard did keep a level head. He was still able to practice with the team. He took reps with the scout team and worked hard on improving his own game. He impressed the coaches with his progression and showed that he could be a big-time back once he became eligible.
“He took as much advantage of a redshirt year as anybody I've seen,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. “He was a little stiff in his hips and in his movements, and he went to work and did a great job with our strength and conditioning guys, became more flexible and looks a whole lot different than he did when he was at Nebraska.”
Heard is no longer just a speed back. He can run it inside just as well as he can run it outside. He’s improved his pass-catching abilities and his pass protection, and he’s a guy the coaches believe can do everything they’re going to ask their running backs to do.
As the team looks to replace starter Raymond Sanders this spring, Heard is very much in the mix to win the job once the season rolls around.
“He knows it's real now,” Brown said. “He knows that he's competing for a starting job. He knows that what he does every day at practice will determine how many times he carries the ball. There's maybe a little more at stake.”
The other competitors include JoJo Kemp, the team’s leading rusher from last fall; Mikel Horton, a power back who arrived in January; and Josh Clemons, who is finally healthy after missing the past two seasons because of injury.
“They're great guys,” Heard said. “We're all working hard as a group. There are a lot of characters in the room, and I've really enjoyed competing with those guys.”
The Kentucky spring game is Saturday, and ultimately, Heard wants to win the job. It’s why he transferred from Nebraska in the first place. He doesn’t want to get buried on the depth chart again. But whether he’s starting or next in line, he still just wants to do his part to help the team win.
“[My goal is] to be successful and just help out the team as much as I can,” he said. “If we're winning, then I'm happy.”