This is the third in a series of posts which will break down the '08 football 'Cats. Today we break down the linebackers.
How to replace the irreplaceable? That is the question Kentucky linebackers coach Chuck Smith must be asking himself as he lies in bed every night, not sleeping. Wesley Woodyard, the SEC's leading tackler the last two years has taken his speed, intensity, and general havoc-wreaking nature to the NFL's Denver Broncos. Which begs the questions: Which player will step up and replace Woodyard's 139 tackles, 5 pass break-ups, and 2.5 sacks? Which player will step up and replace Woodyard's leadership and Mike Singletary-type intensity? Which player will step up and replace Woodyard's jets ( 4.51 - 40 at the NFL combine ) as he comes around end? Which player will step up and replace Woodyard's refusal to allow that extra yard? Which player will step up and replace Woodyard on the first team All-SEC defense?
Well, since no one is truly irreplaceable, my money is on:
Kelley a 6'0", 226 lb senior is, in my mind, the most likely to fill Woodyard's considerable cleats. Kelley has been good since he stepped on campus, earning All-SEC Freshman honors. Last year he made 63 tackles ( third on the team ), with 5 tackles for loss. He also grabbed an interception, and recorded 1 pass break-up. Kelley claims 189 career tackles.
The one caveat one must remember when evaluating Kelley's impact in '08, is the fact that he is moving from middle linebacker to the weak-side spot, formerly occupied by Mr. Woodyard. Kelly's transition though, was applauded in the spring by the coaching staff, possibly due to the fact that Kelley brings the same attitude to the football field as his predecessor. He has always been a hard-driving, aggressive, intense player, this year though he will be looked to for leadership. Woodyard not only led by example, he was the vocal leader responsible for defensive assignments after the play clock started. This aspect of Kelley's responsibilities is new. I have no doubt that he will embrace the challenge and continue in his upward career arc.
Kelley has watched and learned from one of the best linebackers in UK history for the last three years. Hopefully he's salivating at the chance to lead UK's defense in their next step toward respectability. If Kelley's '08 Blue-White game is any indication of what is to come, then UK football fans can rest easy. He posted 12 tackles, with a pick, and 1 tackle for loss.
Kelley, along with Trevard Lindley, have an opportunity to make a nasty mark on the UK record books. Together, the two terrific defenders can help change the perception of Kentucky football by leading this team to the seven win mark, all the while gaining the coveted three winning seasons in a row honor. Recognizing the possibilities this season holds has surely not escaped Mr. Kelley.
Johnson, the 6'2", 255 lb junior, is poised to take over the middle linebacker spot he shared with Braxton Kelley last year. Johnson made that magical leap from potential to performance last year. He posted 58 tackles ( fifth on the team ), with 5 tackles for loss. He also recorded 2 interceptions, and 5 pass break-ups.
The most positive aspect of Johnson's performance last year was the extraordinary improvement he made on passing downs. His freshman year Johnson struggled mightily with thinking, instead of reacting, on passing downs ( he did make the All-SEC Freshman team though ). Rich Brooks, when asked about Johnson's playing time, always responded that Johnson wasn't effective in passing downs, therefore he rotated him out of the lineup. What a difference a year can make.
To his great credit, Johnson seems to have mastered reacting instead of thinking. Last year he did a tremendous job covering receiving tight ends, and with his 4.6 speed his pursuit was noticeably more aggressive, and ended in success more often. I certainly expect Johnson to continue to improve during his junior year, and should prove to be yet another important component in UK's defensive revival. Given his incredible increase in productivity, Johnson has a chance to join Lindley and Kelley as the three ( instead of two ) anchors of Kentucky's defense.
Returning players of note
- Johnny Williams -- 6'3", 240 lb senior: 43 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass break-up. Williams will continue to battle with Sam Maxwell for the starting nod at the strong-side linebacker position.
- Mikhail Mabry -- 6'2", 235 lb junior: 2 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception. Mabry will most likely back-up Micah Johnson at middle linebacker.
- Sam Maxwell -- 6'3", 225 lb junior: 27 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 2 pass break-ups, 1 fumble recovery. Maxwell lost time last time last year to Johnny Williams. He will once again fight with the senior for playing time. He will be in the linebacker rotation.
- A.J. Nance -- 5'11", 240 lb junior: 8 tackles. Nance finds himself third string middle linebacker going into the opening of practice on August 5th. It's doubtful he will be apart of the rotation, but he will see some playing time.
- Jacob Dufrene -- 6'2", 215 lb sophomore: 3 tackles. Dufrene is listed third on the depth chart at the weak-side linebacker spot. As with Nance, he probably won't make the rotation, but he will see playing time.
- Michael Schwindal -- 6'2", 220 lb junior: 4 tackles. Schwindal is changing positions for '08. For the last two years the Hancock County native has played at the free safety spot. He moved to the weak-side linebacker position in spring practice and excelled. Excelled so much that he is second on the depth chart at weak-side linebacker. He'll be backing up Braxton Kelley, so he's not likely to play an enormous number of downs, unless of course Kelley goes down to injury.
- Danny Trevathan -- 6'2", 215 lbs. He has been compared to Wesley Woodyard because of his speed and intensity. He runs a 4.45 - 40 , which for those new to the sport, is very fast, especially for a linebacker. With the depth UK sports at the position I doubt Trevathan will see much, if any time. But, in football injuries are always the unknown factor in the pre-season, and linebackers possessing Trevathan's speed are very difficult to keep off of the field.
- Taylor Wyndham -- 6'4", 204 lbs. Wyndham is rated the #47 strong-side linebacker prospect by Scout.com. His senior year in high school he played outside linebacker, but as he continues to grow and become stronger, he will probably be considered for a defensive end spot.
Last years linebacker core recorded 5 interceptions, and 14 pass break-ups. Not bad numbers, but conversely they only sacked the quarterback 3 times. Obviously that number needs to rise ... considerably. Consistent pressuring of the quarterback wasn't executed last year, i.e. the UT and S. Carolina games. This year there will be no Wesley Woodyard to bail 'em out.
It's really very simple. Williams, Johnson and Kelley have to perform better than they ever have to make up for the loss of Woodyard. And by "better" I mean more consistent, because consistency in performance is the only attribute lacking from this group. Spring practice though, brought kudos from the coaching staff on the linebackers play, so hopefully the trio will continue UK's recent trend of producing great linebackers.
Since 1970, which UK football player holds the record for most tackles in a season with 183?
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!