Kentucky football isn't the proud owner of much tradition, but one position that has been a UK strength over the years is the linebacker spot. From the 1960's-on UK boasts a plethora of outstanding linebackers: Jim Foley, Joe Federspiel, Wilbur Hackett (the first black team captain in SEC history), Jim Kovach (UK's all-time tackle leader with 521), Ken King, Tom Ehlers and Lester Boyd. More recently Randy Holleran, Marty Moore (UK's single-season tackle king with 183), Kevin McClellan, Chris Chenault (the No. 2 UK all-time tackle leader with 482), Jeff Kremer, John Grimsely, Wesley Woodward and Braxton Kelley have fiercely patrolled the backside of the UK defensive line.
Once again, in 2009 the Kentucky football team lays claim to at least one linebacker capable of being a back-breaker for opponents; senior middle linebacker, and All-SEC selection, Micah Johnson. Johnson, who has shown incremental improvement all three years he's suited-up for the 'Cats, will have several talented, but in some cases, inexperienced players, helping him off-set the loss of graduated linebackers Braxton Kelley and Johnny Williams (137 combined tackles, and nine sacks), as well as the loss of Hancock County product Michael Schwindel (recurring shoulder injuries), and North Laurel alum Chris Cessna (recurring knee problems).
For a closer look at Kentucky's 2009 linebacker corp ...
... we begin with the presumed starters, beginning with the aforementioned human wrecking-ball ...
Micah Johnson -- 6'2", 258 lb senior middle linebacker: In 2008, Johnson was second on the team with 93 tackles (3rd in the SEC), and led the 'Cats with 60 solo tackles (in only 11 games). He recorded 13.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two pass break-ups, two pass deflections, and two quarterback hurries. For his career he's responsible for 180 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. In 2009, Johnson is on a laundry list of preseason watch lists: Including the Lombardi Award given to the nations top lineman (including offensive and defensive linemen, tight ends, and linebackers), The Butkus Award, given to the nations top linebacker, and the Bronko Nagurski Award, given to the nations top defensive player.
The All-SEC performer, who has overcome his questionable passing-downs defense, will be responsible along with Corey Peters, at setting the defensive "tone" for this team. If Johnson can capitalize on his freakish combination of strength, speed, and size, then the front seven should accomplish their ultimate goal, which is to stop the running game, and pressure the passer. Johnson's relentless pursuit of the ball may allow him to at least come near Marty Moore's UK season record of 183 tackles.
Last season UK recorded 32 sacks (for a -195 yards), which is a nice number, but they allowed 139.2 yards rushing per game in '08. That number has to decrease in order for UK to optimize their chances at victory, and Johnson holds the key to stopping the middle run option, along with forcing the ball-carrier to the edges.
Sam Maxwell -- 6'3", 248 lb senior strongside linebacker: In '08 Maxwell played in 12 games, earning a start versus Western Kentucky. He executed 25 tackles, and 3.5 tackles for loss, with his first career sack coming against Georgia. He also recorded five tackles against both Alabama and Florida. In '07, Maxwell had 27 tackles, and five tackles for loss. He recorded a career high six tackles versus LSU, and he intercepted his first pass in the second overtime of the Tennessee game. In Maxwell's 37 career games (four starts), he's responsible for 58 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four pass deflections, and one interception.
Maxwell could open the season on either side of Micah Johnson, but as of now he's slated for the strongside spot. His considerable speed, and uncanny ability to get in the backfield will ensure he sees plenty of reps. His responsiblity will be to get to the edges to stop the running game, and of course, put pressure on the quarterback, something he has done very well over his career.
Danny Trevathan -- 6'1", 220 lb sophomore weakside linebacker: In '08, Trevathan contributed mostly as a special teams member. He recorded five tackles, and blocked a punt, setting up a touchdown against Georgia. The extremely athletic Trevathan was a track star in high school, participating in the 100-, and 200-meter dashes, and well as the 4x100 relay. He's been clocked at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash.
The coaches have been raving about Trevathan for nearly two years now. The Leesburg, Florida native's athleticism, speed, and 8-cylinder motor makes him the perfect complement to Johnson and Maxwell. He could be the next great one.
Playing Time Contenders
Mikhail Mabry -- 6'2", 250 lb senior middle linebacker: Mabry has played in 32 games as a Wildcat. In '08, the Hawai'i native played in all 13 UK contests, recording eight tackles and forced a fumble. In '07, Mabry played in 12 games resulting in two tackles and a tackle for loss. He also picked-off a pass versus Kent State. Mabry has already graduated, completing a degree in kinesiology.
Mabry will be a key backup linebacker. He previously has been considered a backup for Micah Johnson, but Ronnie Sneed (see below) has taken over the top reserve middle linebacker slot. In an effort to get him on the field he may be switched to either weakside or strongside.
Ronnie Sneed -- 6'2", 230 lb sophomore linebacker: The Tallahassee native was voted UK's Most Valuable Defensive Scout Team Player by the coaches in '07. In '08, Sneed played in six varsity games, with his first career start coming in the Liberty Bowl. As a special teams performer in that same game, he pancaked a kick-returner inside the opponents 20-yard line.
Sneed will be a very important component to the UK linebacker corps. As Micah Johnson's backup, he'll be responsible for giving the UK star some rest (if needed), and filling in when Johnson isn't healthy. And considering Johnson's injury history, Sneed could see major reps in '09.
William Johnson -- 6'2", 205 redshirt freshman linebacker: Out of Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School, Johnson was voted UK's Most Valuable Defensive Scout Team Player by the coaches in '08. In high school Johnson also played free safety. In his senior year of high school Johnson recorded 80 tackles, 12 sacks and an interception. On the offensive side of the ball the caught 37 passes for 689 yards, and rushed 21 times for 350 yards. He also averaged a Devin Hester-like 35-yards per PUNT return. He's been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Needless to say, his speed will necessitate him playing one of the corner linebacker spots. The coaches love his athleticism (a common theme among the LB's), and he'll see time on the field this year. Since the staff made the decision to use Johnson at linebacker instead of safety, he'll need to add some poundage; I highly recommend Tolly Ho.
Antonio Thomas -- 6'1", 228 lb sophomore linebacker: The Palmetto State native saw no varsity action in '08. He redshirted the '07 season. Another track star, Thomas competed in the long and triple jump, as well as the 400-meter run, 4x400-meter relay, and the 4x800 relay. In football, Thomas displayed great versatility by playing both wide receiver and defensive back.
Thomas has impressed the coaches with his "tracking ability," i.e. he engages in dogged pursuit of the ball-carrier.
Jacob Dufrene -- 6'1", 220 lb junior strongside linebacker: Dufrene has recorded four tackles in 23 career games, mostly as a special team's member.
Dufrene will add much-needed depth to the linebacker group, as he was second on the depth chart at strongside linebacker behind Sam Maxwell.
Brandon Thurmond -- 6'2", 226 lb junior weakside linebacker: The Georgia native has missed the last two seasons due to injury, after redshirting his freshman campaign.
As with Dufrene, Thurmond will add some depth to the linebacker spot.
Ridge Wilson -- 6'3", 210 lb true freshman linebacker: The Louisville Central High School alum was voted 1st Team All-State after accounting for 76 tackles, two tackles for loss, and three interceptions his senior season. Wilson led Central to two straight 3A State Championships. He was rated the No. 8 college prospect in Kentucky by Rivals and SuperPreps. He runs a 4.6 40-yard dash. Extremely versatile, he played linebacker, defensive end, strong safety, and wide receiver at Central. Also an outstanding student, he was recruited by several Ivy League schools.
Wilson is one of those young, overly talented players who just needs some experience, and a bit more size. Fundamentally, he's very sound, and has a huge motor. He'll see the field this year, possibly more than several of his older and more experienced teammates.
Tristian Johnson -- 6'1", 210 lb true freshman linebacker: Continuing the LaGrange, Georgia pipeline, Johnson comes to UK as the No. 57 rated weakside defensive end in the nation, according to Rivals. In his senior year, he recorded 97 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks.
Johnson will probably redshirt this season.
Qua Huzzie -- 5'10", 210 lb true freshman linebacker: Another LaGrange performer migrating north. Huzzie arrives at UK the proud owner of the career tackle record at LaGrange, a school with numerous Georgia state titles, innumerable collegiate performers, as well as several players in the NFL (former UK stars Wesley Woodyard and Braxton Kelley to name only two). Huzzie made 437 career tackles, with 55 tackles for loss in his four year career. He recorded 145 tackles his senior year (21 tackles for loss). He was also named the 3A Georgia State Defensive Player of the Year, and he made 1st Team All-State both his junior and senior years. He runs a 4.56 40-yards dash, and was rated the No. 45 outside linebacker in the nation by Rivals. Huzzie is the cousin of former UK receiver, and current student coach DeMoreo Ford.
Unfortunately, Huzzie suffered a year-ending injury last week, and will redshirt this season.
This group of linebackers are largely inexperienced as it pertains to starting, but there are several players who have played major reps in big games. And in those games they have produced, particularly Sam Maxwell. Regardless, though, linebacker coach Chuck Smith (Smith's son, Brandon, is the starting QB for WKU this year) must have these players ready to pursue the ball-carrier, whether the quarterback or tailback, because as I stated earlier, UK must improve on the 1,810 rushing yards allowed last season.
If Kentucky's linebackers are to perform as UK fans have become accustomed, then Micah Johnson has to be the bell-cow. He must lead, not only with this words, but more importantly with his actions. When he's healthy, his ball pursuit is a sight to behold, and I'm sure NFL general managers are salivating at the thought of him running loose in the backfield of their opponents. But first, he must school his less accomplished teammates in the art of never giving up.
With the SEC quarterback-lite this season, expect to see teams run, run, and run some more, which places an even greater impetus on the need for UK's linebackers to perform.
Previous 2009 football preview entries: Setting a New Standard The Defensive Line
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!