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September 8, 2012Sweat was still rolling down Aaron Boyd's face long after the game was finished. His eye black, smudged across his cheeks after the biggest game of his career, shone brightly under the lights of TV cameras.
He leaned back in his chair. The lights on the cameras didn't bother him. Neither did the lights at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
Boyd had 11 receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown against Kent State in Kentucky's 47-14 win. That more than doubled his career highs. He entered Saturday's game with nine career receptions for 87 yards and no touchdowns.
"He was saying on the sideline 'Keep feeding me, man. Keep feeding me,'" quarterback Maxwell Smith said.
Boyd, making his first start since 2008, led all receivers. His 14-yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter tied the game at 7-7 and sparked the best offensive performance for the Wildcats since 2010. Kentucky finished with 539 total yards of offense, more than any game last season.
Smith also threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns, the most yards of any UK quarterback since 2007. When Kent State refused to go away, Kentucky responded. And when Smith needed a go-to receiver, he found Boyd.
"It's a dream come true, really," Boyd said.
Despite giving up 182 rushing yards to the Golden Flashes, including touchdowns of 47 and 26 yards, the UK offense pulled away in the second half. The Wildcats score the final 30 points of the game to slam the door on Kent State. The Golden Flashes cut the lead to 17-14 early in the third quarter, but wouldn't score again after that. Junior running back Raymond Sanders also rushed for a career-high 115 yards and a touchdown.
Shane Boyd, Aaron's older brother who played quarterback from 2001-04, flew in for the game to see his brother start. The brothers talk before every game and after every practice, and Shane was a source of endless encouragement for Aaron.
"I gained confidence a long the way," Boyd said. "It felt kind of weird. I had a little rush going, but when the ball comes my way my job is to catch it. That's what I want to do. That's what I was recruited to do."
Boyd, a four-star recruit from Henry Clay High School in Lexington, drew attention long before he found himself under the lights on Saturday. As Shane's younger brother, he was known to UK fans before he even arrived on campus.
He was one of six wide receivers in Kentucky's 2008 recruiting class that included Randall Cobb. But he struggled with illness early in his career and fell down the depth chart, all but an afterthought entering his senior year.
Wide receivers coach Pat Washington asked Boyd his goal for the season. His answer didn't include a statistic or making an All-SEC team. He just wanted to be trusted. No matter the situation, he wanted his teammates and coaches to believe he would do his job when called upon.
"We all believed in Aaron," Smith said. "Maybe the coaches needed to. I don't know."
Washington's arrival in February was a change for Boyd. He was the third position coach in his career, but it was a chance at a clean start. Even early, Washington relied upon the senior. When Washington had a question about the offense he needed answered, he would ask Boyd.
He had won his coaches' trust. He just had to prove it on the field.
"He's given himself a chance," Washington said. "It's really not me."
That chance came in part because of the way he blocked in practice. Phillips leapt out from the sideline to high-five Boyd after he laid a block to spring fellow senior wide receiver La'Rod King free.
It was his consistency in practice, including in his blocking, that led the coaches to give him his second career start. He had three catches for a career-high 36 yards in the season opener, but that was just the beginning.
"I think a lot of it has to do with Aaron deciding, 'Hey, this is my last one, I'm going to do what I have to do and work my tail off," head coach Joker Phillips said.
Phillips uses words to describe Boyd he had never used in the past: mature, consistent, physical. The lights were a new feeling for Boyd. But the game was something else.
"It felt real good," Boyd said. "But I'm not done. I want to keep this thing going."