Outside linebacker J.J. Weaver has seemingly found his happy place, getting back to full strength, both on and off the field this fall, as the inspirational leader for the Kentucky defense.
The Louisville native has had to overcome numerous challenges during his Kentucky football career, including the loss of his father and high school coach, a torn ACL during the 2020 season, and some well documented mental health struggles. He’s also had to overcome constant bullying during his youth from a rare condition known as polydactyly, as Weaver has six fingers on his right hand.
During Kentucky’s media day, Weaver shared his story that includes seeking out therapy, leaning on former teammate Josh Paschal, a cancer survivor who took him to church last season, and finding support from Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White.
“To be honest, it took me a while to even open up,” said Weaver. “It was hard. One night it really hit me. I was crying in my room and I called Coach White at 3 o’clock in the morning and said I need to talk to somebody...I’m not myself. I’ve matured so much better. Now I tell them (his teammates) to talk to me if they need anything. Just talk to me. I’m here for you all.”
After going down with a knee injury at Florida in 2020, Weaver bounced back last season to record 34 tackles and six sacks on his way to being named a Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year. He is one of six returning starters for the Kentucky defense along with inside linebackers DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones, follow outside linebacker Jordan Wright, and defensive backs Carrington Valentine and Tyrell Ajian.
White, now in his fifth season at Kentucky, said Weaver’s progression during fall camp has been all about confidence and a consistency that’s been at a higher level this year.
“You can see that twitch is back,” said White. “Between spring, summer and first day of practice, you see him brimming with confidence. He’s playing fast. He’s communicating out there. He’s a guy that’s very much in control of his position right now and that’s a great thing to see because even when he was playing at a really high level in 2020, right before the injury, he didn’t have the command of the position that he has now. So now you put that athleticism together with the command of the position and a focus and understanding that this could be a big year.”
- Position: Outside Linebacker
- Class: Junior
- Measurements: 6-foot-5, 242 lbs.
- Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
- School: More Traditional High School
- Recruiting Rankings: Ranked as a 4-star recruit by Rivals and 247 Sports. Was also named the fourth-best prospect in Kentucky as a senior.
OLB @jjtimeee got to meet one his biggest fans today, a 5-year-old named Millie Forker!— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) August 13, 2022
Millie has Kabuki Syndrome and Arthrogryposis and has four fingers on her right hand. With JJ’s six fingers, they had a 10-finger high five! She’s a kindergartner at Woodlawn Elementary! pic.twitter.com/VhU9qow6By
In 2021, the Kentucky defense held opponents to 21.7 points and 340.1 points per game, finishing the season ranked fourth in the SEC in total defense. The trio of Paschal, Weaver and Wright combined for 29.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks during a 10-3 season. Paschal was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round.
“This year, I think we’re more mature,” said Weaver of the defensive unit. “We learned from mistakes. We learned from the Tennessee game. We learned from the Mississippi State game, plus Coach White recruited a lot of DBs and a lot of positions that we needed help with. They’re going to help for sure.”
Weaver, a former standout at Moore Traditional School, has also been leader off the field this summer, hosting his own youth football camp at his alma mater and lending his name and support to the “Back To School With J.J. Weaver” School Supply Drive in Louisville.
“We expect big things from him,” said White. “I am not going to shy away, and he will not shy away from understanding that we need him to take that next step and be a guy-guy. He has got to be a difference maker for us on defense.”
The No. 20-ranked Wildcats will get a big test early when they travel to “The Swamp” to play the Florida Gators on September 10th, a game Weaver has circled on his calendar.
“I tore my ACL down there two years ago so Florida for sure,” said Weaver when asked about what game he’s looking forward to the most this season. “Florida - back in the swamp - that’s the second game too so I’m ready.”