Abney finally breaks through with record-tying kick return

Updated: October 30, 2003, 1:37 PM ET

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Derek Abney didn't realize how much pressure he'd put on himself to return a kick for a touchdown this season until he actually did it.

When Abney reached the end zone -- with a little assistance from teammate Andrew Hopewell -- to cap an 80-yard return last Saturday against Mississippi State, his celebration "was a little more than I expected it to be.

"I don't want to say I really thought about it, thinking, 'Oh, I'm not going to get one.' But when I did get that one, I really got excited and celebrated a lot more than I had before or thought I would," Abney said.

After a 2002 season during which he had an NCAA-record six kick return touchdowns and received first-team All-America honors, big things were expected of the senior from Mosinee, Wis.

Needing only one return to tie the NCAA career record of eight kick return scores, though, Abney quickly learned most teams weren't interested in kicking to him. Florida did, and Abney returned a punt for a touchdown, but a penalty wiped out that return.

"I was real frustrated that we didn't get a lot of chances," Abney said. "I knew that people would prepare for our special teams, but I was kind of hoping for more chances than we had gotten during a game."

He finally got his chance against Mississippi State. Abney retreated to field the punt at his own 20, cut right across the field and headed for the sideline. He ran into a logjam at about the 10, but an Earven Flowers block and a little push from Hopewell got Abney into the end zone.

The touchdown gave Kentucky (4-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) the lead for the first time in a game the Wildcats went on to win 42-17.

"I think that gave our whole team a lift," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "He made a great run and we got some key blocks on that return, but the last seven or eight yards was all guts and determination to get to the end zone."

The SEC named Abney as its special teams player of the week -- the fourth time in two years he's received that honor.

"He has been so much fun to watch," Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen said. "He'll tell you, it's not about him, it's about the return guys blocking for him. But he's a great player, too."

The numbers back up Lorenzen's claim. Abney is one of only three NCAA Division I-A players to account for 2,000 receiving yards, 1,000 kickoff return yards and 1,000 punt return yards in a career. (Anthony Carter of Michigan and Tim Dwight of Iowa are the others.) At 165.9 yards per game, Abney is second nationally in all-purpose yards.

The Wildcats will try to use the momentum from the Mississippi State game as they head into their final four games of the season, starting Saturday with Arkansas (4-3, 1-3).

"They're coming off three losses and they'll be ready for us," Abney said. "Hopefully we can use special teams as kind of a momentum thing during the game, too."

Abney helped the Wildcats beat Arkansas 29-17 last year in Fayetteville, Ark. He had a 37-yard punt return to set up one touchdown and then his 86-yard return for a touchdown was part of a 20-point third quarter.

"Derek Abney is a tremendous threat," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "We have to do a great job with our coverage teams. He's a special guy. He can make them miss and he's got great quickness and he's been an unbelievable threat on punt returns and kickoff returns."

Brooks said one of the team's goals is to give Abney outright ownership of the NCAA kick return record he now shares with Cliff Branch of Colorado (1970-71) and Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska (1970-72). Other standout returners also chasing the record include Antonio Perkins of Oklahoma and Wes Welker of Texas Tech, who each have seven returns (all punts) for touchdowns in their careers. Perkins is a junior; Welker a senior.

"Of course that's competition," Abney said. "You still want to be the best ever. You still want to be the only one with nine. So yeah, it pushes you a little bit."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index