Kentucky enters season opener with uncertainty at linebacker
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky enters the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette needing contributions from its linebackers, and that means all of them.
Seniors Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson, Jabari Johnson and Ryan Flannigan provide experience, but the Wildcats’ depth drops off drastically with several freshmen playing behind the veterans.
There is even more of a sense of urgency because Flannigan is doubtful with a shoulder injury, resulting in a reshuffling that has thrust redshirt freshmen such as Denzil Ware and Nico Firios into bigger roles.
Though the underclassmen have shown promise in fall camp, no one knows how they’ll react in their first live game action. For that matter, the Wildcats are eager to see how the unit in general reacts following the departure of pass rusher Bud Dupree to the NFL and the absence of junior Jason Hatcher, who is suspended for the first two games for violating team rules.
“It’s been tough, but guys have to adapt to the situation,” said Henderson, who’s likely to start at weakside linebacker with Flannigan out. “These kinds of things happen during the course of the season, but guys have to be ready to step up. The good thing is we have some depth, otherwise it would be a big problem.”
No matter what, Saturday night’s inaugural meeting against Louisiana-Lafayette will challenge Kentucky defensively.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are coming off their fourth straight nine-win season and return running back Elijah McGuire, who rushed for 1,264 of his 1,848 total yards last season. McGuire could get a lot of touches to help ULL break in a new quarterback, putting the Wildcats on notice to stiffen up after allowing 191 yards rushing per contest in 2014.
“It comes down to getting more stops,” coach Mark Stoops said Monday. “We certainly need to be better on third downs. You limit some opportunities, you limit some plays if you can get off the field.”
Forrest provides a strong inside presence for Kentucky after leading Kentucky with 110 tackles last season. He also intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown and is being counted to fill the leadership role held by end/linebacker Bud Dupree, who’s now with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Everything is just so natural now,” said Forrest, who is backed up by Firios. “I’m seeing things better and am just calling out things to whoever is next to me, and we get it done.”
The Wildcats’ biggest questions are on the outside, where Hatcher was expected to start before being disciplined early in camp. Johnson moves there after being initially projected to play Dupree’s hybrid role now manned by Ware.
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Ware’s athleticism makes him a capable run stopper and pass rusher. But mindful that Saturday will be his first game, he added, “I’m just expecting him to not have to do anything Superman(-like).”
Stoops meanwhile praised Firios’ instincts, adding he just needs seasoning. The coach is confident that Henderson (53 tackles) can handle things in Flannigan’s absence, with freshman Jordan Jones also expected to play. After all, he once was one of those youngsters learning things on the fly and experiencing growing pains.
Henderson and other upperclassmen are now teaching those hard lessons as the whole unit faces its first test Saturday night.
“We’re running a tight ship,” Henderson said. “They’re asking a lot of questions and we’ve just tried to pull them along and get them up to speed as fast as possible.”