Since he grew up in Columbus, Ohio, talented receiver Kalil Branham’s dream was to play football in the Big Ten. He originally committed to Michigan but later had a change of heart and signed with Kentucky.
“I felt like I could play really anywhere (in the country) and I felt like this was the place I needed to be,” said Branham, who enrolled at UK in January. “I had heard about UK from other guys they were recruiting in Ohio but I was just kind of focused on what I needed to better myself to get to where I should be.
“Once I decided it was not Michigan, the UK coaches started talking to me and I could tell they really cared about me and wanted the best out of me. As soon as I stepped on campus, it felt like home. It just felt like family with all the love and some place that I had to be.”
He was rated a top 500 national recruit by 247Sports and as the 10th best player in Ohio — and he even played quarterback as a junior out of necessity when injuries hit. That’s the same scenario that shifted Lynn Bowden from receiver to quarterback for UK last year when the Cats turned exclusively into a running team.
“They did have a great quarterback (Terry Wilson) who did go down and knowing he would hopefully be playing the next year made me not worry about the offense and this is a place where I could show what I have got skill-wise,” Branham said. “I know they have great quarterbacks here and they ran the offense they did last year because that’s what it took to win.
“But since I played quarterback in high school as well, I felt if that happened again (with injuries) I could be in the place Lynn was in and try to do what he did. I have been out with quarterbacks here. We go out every Saturday and throw. Everybody is looking real good right now. I am not worried about us being able to throw the ball a lot next season.”
Branham is an exceptional athlete who lettered in four sports — football, basketball, baseball and track —at Northland High School in Columbus. He was a state champion in the 200-meter dash.
“I would say my two favorite sports would be baseball and football. I was a center fielder, pitcher and shortstop in baseball. I had a .457 batting average and considered myself a good hitter,” he said.
He says skills from all those sports help make him a good receiver.
“My physicalness, my speed, all of that makes me a great all-around receiver,” he said.
His first love actually was lacrosse, or maybe boxing. He played lacrosse before football and then did both from fourth grade through seventh grade.
“Lacrosse is just like football. I loved the contact,” he said. “Somebody is coming down with the stick and you could just hit ‘em. That’s what I enjoyed.”
What about boxing?
“I did box for the same reason. We have a heavy bag in the student center (at UK) that I will go to probably once a week just to stay sharp,” he said.
There is a softer side to Branham, though. He loves to bake, something he started doing with his mom when he was about 3 years old.
“Then I just took it on by myself. It’s just something I always enjoyed,” Branham said while noting that brownies are his specialty.
He’s also incredibly smart. He taught himself to play the piano, something very few people could ever do, about four years ago.
“Playing by ear takes a lot of repetition. Hearing the song and playing and hearing and playing. It does take a while to learn and teach yourself. It’s a talent. I don’t know if everybody has it or not,” he said.
He started playing the violin at age 8 or 9 along with the saxophone. He gave up the violin at age 13.
“My mom was in the (church) choir when she was younger and she sings. She played in the marching band when she was in high school. She played the flute, so music is kind of in our family,” Branham said.
But so is football. His brother, John, is a running back at Eastern Michigan — the team Kentucky opens the season against Sept. 5 at Kroger Field. The UK freshman said going against his brother, who is two years old, always pushed him to improve.
“We pushed each other every day to get better. Didn’t matter what we were doing, we pushed each other but also had a love for each other that motivated us,” Kalil Branham said.
Just like he was last season, Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans is regarded as one of the nation’s top defensive players. He was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year just like he was last year. He was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season.
“There is no better defender that I know of,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “There is nobody that will come up with a rebound to win a game like him.”
Calipari didn’t stop there, though, as he switched over to Hagans’s offensive worth.
“He can create shots for his teammates. He makes the game easier for them,” Calipari said. “His turnovers are a little high. We’ve got to get them back where they were. But that’s okay. We can do that. That’s not like saying we’ve got to teach him to run faster, we’ve got to teach him to jump higher.”
Calipari wants Hagans to stay aggressive but do so a bit more wisely than he has at times during the last 10 games.
“I need him to attack, but if there’s an 80-20, 70-30 percent chance of success, do it; 50-50, 60-40, don’t do it,” the UK coach said. “That tells me maybe he’s a little mentally tired, and so my thing is that. How do we get this to where you’re back to one or two turnovers a game and still getting your seven assists, six assists?
“How do we do it? Is it step you off the court for a game and let you have a couple days of practice off and a game off and then come back fresh? I don’t know. That’s an option, which I’ve talked to him about.”
Hagans said he would sit out if asked and admitted he has had thigh, shoulder, back and ankle injuries this season. But he doesn’t want to miss any games.
“I would always want to be out there on the court to try to keep winning, try to keep doing something good, try to keep this thing on a roll,” Hagans said.
The sophomore had just one turnover in 34 minutes in the win over Auburn Saturday that clinched the SEC title. He also had five assists, three steals and three rebounds. But he was 2-for-13 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range.
However, the shooting didn’t upset Calipari who said UK could win even if he did that, provided his other stats and defense were as good as they were against Auburn.
“ The only person it bothers? Him. His head goes down and ‘I can’t believe, I missed this dunk.’ Forget it. For our team, it really doesn’t matter,” Calipari said. “If you defend, you get five, six, seven assists and one turnover and you do the rebounding and all the other stuff, we’re going to win. But it’s hard for these kids. They are not robots, not machines.”
Former Kentucky offensive lineman Logan Stenberg was at the NFL Combine last week and UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow likes what he heard from NFL personnel.
“They love him,” Marrow said. “I don’t think he will last past the third round (of the draft in April). I talk to a lot of NFL guys. There are a lot who love him and some that don’t like the penalties (Stenberg had at UK). But I told them you’ve got to have a grown man in the offensive line. If your line is tough, he will make it tougher. If it is not tough, he will make it tough.
“He’s a gentleman off the field but on the field he is nasty. At the Senior Bowl, he made a lot of money for himself with how he played.”
Marrow has explained to NFL scouts that Stenberg, an Alabama native, was part of a culture change at UK.
“ I told them we had Benny Snell, Josh Allen and Lynn Bowden but I truly believe the culture changed here when we got some big, tough linemen,” Marrow said. “Logan is the type dude when you get off the bus that people know he’s a tough dude.
“Our line started getting respect and Logan helped change that culture for us in this league. He’ll help some team in the NFL do the same.”