Gone is Danny Trevathan, the do-it-all linebacker that was seemingly in on every play. Gone is Winston Guy, the hybrid safety/linebacker that flourished in the first year of Rick Minter’s system. With the departure of No. 22 and No. 19, Kentucky loses two of the top tacklers in the SEC from a year ago. They lose a postseason All-SEC First Team defensive player in Trevathan and a Second team performer in Guy. They also lose a guy in Ronnie Sneed, who was often overshadowed by Trevathan and Guy, but still ranked third on the team in total tackles.
The trio of Wildcats combined for 90 starts and 819 tackles in their careers. Needless to say, the Wildcats have some holes to fill in Minter’s 3-4 defense. While the 2012 group of linebackers may lack experience, the UK coaching staff is extremely excited about their upside.
After two seasons in the backup role, junior middle linebacker Avery Williamson (6-1, 243) is now the leader of the defense. And it is a role that he has really embraced, spending hours upon hours in the film room during the offseason. Embracing that leadership role is key because of the emphasis that Minter puts on the middle linebacker position. As the MLB, you are the quarterback of the defense.
He has played in 25 games in his first two years in Lexington and is known for his ability to get out on the edge and make plays in space. Despite not starting a game as a sophomore he still ranked fifth on the team in tackles with 49. He also had an interception against Florida. Look for him to lead the ‘Cats in tackles in 2012.
The Hybrid End
Sophomore Alvin “Bud” Dupree (6-4, 249) impressed in his three starts as a true freshman a year ago. He played in all 12 games as rookie and started the last three games of the year, recording 21 tackles. 14 of his tackles came during his three starts to end the season. Like Williamson, the coaching staff praises his work ethic and they are excited about his extreme athleticism and his ability to simply make plays. His ability to pressure the quarterback is something that UK will rely on heavily. This is a kid that played tight end and defensive line in high school and he has put on 40 pounds of muscle since arriving in Lexington. He has the ability to be special.
The Hybrid Safety
Stepping into the role that Winston Guy played so well a year ago is sophomore Miles Simpson (6-2, 223). Simpson came to Kentucky as a running back and later moved to safety. He now enters the season as the starter at the linebacker/safety hybrid position. While Williamson had 49 tackles and Dupree had 21 last year, Simpson recorded just five. But, like the other two young linebackers, the coaching staff is really excited about Simpson. His combination of size and athleticism make him perfect for the hybrid position.
Sophomore Tyler Brause (6-4, 239) entered fall drills as the backup to Williamson at the middle linebacker spot. But, with his impressive play has pressed his way into a starting role at the weakside spot. The coaching staff praises his mental and physical toughness and equate his understanding of the opposition’s offensive schemes to his experience at quarterback. He came to Kentucky as a quarterback and switched to linebacker during the 2010 season. He played in 11 games during his redshirt freshman season, most of which was spent on special teams.
Likely splitting snaps with Brause to start the season is fellow sophomore Malcolm McDuffen (6-3, 220). McDuffen was Trevathan’s likely replacement at the weakside spot entering fall drills, but with Brause’s emergence will now share time. McDuffen is known for his speed and made nine tackles during his freshman year, including four versus South Carolina.
Redshirt freshmen Demarius Rancifer (6-2, 221), Josh Forrest (6-3, 230), Jabari Johnson (6-1, 262) and sophomore Kory Brown (6-0, 207) are some other players that could contribute at the linebacker position. Rancifer is a guy that the coaching staff considered using a year ago and burning his redshirt, but in the end they elected to not lose his year of eligibility. He has gained 20 pounds since coming on to campus and has a reputation of being an excellent tackler. Forrest came to UK as a wide receiver and the staff believes him to be perfect for the LB/safety hybrid spot because of his mixture of size and athleticism. Johnson did not play in spring because of a shoulder injury, but is ready to go. Brown is a transfer out of East Central Community College (Decatur, MS) is another option at LB/safety hybrid.
There is no denying the lack of experience and it is unlikely that UK will put a linebacker on the All-SEC team at the end of the year, something they have done for six straight seasons. But, you also can’t deny the talent and the fact that they are very, very young. By the end of the season, the linebacker position, which is now a bit of a question for outsiders, could end up being a strength.
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