Part six in an eight part series previewing the 2006 Kentucky Wildcat Football team.
Kentucky’s opening day starting linebackers?
Since the dawn of fandom, football fans have always looked with optimism toward all that is new. One need only look at the rampant popularity of the NFL draft or college football recruiting to see that fans are often more exited about what is next than what is now. This is particularly true of fans of struggling teams, and often results in the phenomenon of fans determining that a newcomer is bound to excel before ever seeing him play. In fact, often times all that a fan needs to know is that the player coming in is not the player he will no doubt replace. For the ever-optimistic Kentucky football fan, the hope assigned to newcomers has been elevated to an art form. The reason for this is relatively apparent. None of us has seen any of the new players burned by a Florida receiver, abused by a Tennessee defensive end, or pancaked by a Georgia tackle. For all we know, the newcomers, regardless of their pedigree or who recruited them, are all Tim Couch, Art Still and Sonny Collins all rolled into one. Heaven help us when a guy of the mythical status of Micah Johnson arrives in Lexington.
In years past, the hype and raw talent embodied by the powerful freshman from Ft. Campbell would have certainly had its opportunity to prove itself from the opening gun. As we sit less than two weeks from the season, however, the Cats boast something as rare as high profile incoming talent; experienced returning talent. In Braxton Kelly, Wesley Woodyard and Joe Schuler, Kentucky returns the trio that started the bulk of the 2005 season. Throw in experienced backups like Ben McGrath, Johnny Williams and Mikhail Mabry, and suddenly the path to stardom for Kentucky rookies seems a bit more congested than usual. Make no mistake. If Micah is what he is fabled to be, his talent will ultimately get him on the field. Nonetheless, unlike the recent past, the returning Cat ‘backers will not be brushed aside by a youngster, regardless of hype, without a considerable fight.
PROJECTED OPENING STARTERS:
Braxton Kelly, 6-0, 226 So., LaGrange, Ga. (LaGrange)
Kelly flashed onto the scene as a true freshman with a relatively moderate pedigree nationally and took the starting middle linebacker spot from Joe Schuler in fall camp. He then held the spot until a week 7 knee injury against Mississippi State. Earned freshman All American Honors from Scout, Rivals and the Sporting News by posting 44 tackles prior to injury. Sat out Spring while rehabbing knee, but has participated fully in fall camp and expected to be ready to go for opener. Archer and company rave about his football instincts and ability to get to the ball carrier despite modest speed.
Wesley Woodyard, 6-1, 220 Jr., LaGrange, Ga. (LaGrange)
Kentucky’s emotional bell cow and best defensive player in 2005. Though he played at only around 200 pounds in his first full season at linebacker last season, Woodyard led Kentucky with 100 tackles and 7 tackles for loss. Was named honorable mention All SEC by AP. Has played in 21 career games for the Cats at linebacker and safety, and has recorded 16 starts. Has gained approximately 20 pounds in the last year, and is reported to have kept his excellent speed. Should be a major factor as a blitzer and in pass coverage.
Joe Schuler, 6-3, 233 Jr., Evansville, In. (Central)
Solid linebacker who rarely makes mistakes and is a sure tackler. Started final 8 games of 2005 at strongside ‘backer after being replaced in the middle by Braxton Kelly. Extremely strong player who has shed some weight from 2005 to improve his speed. Finished season with 47 tackles, giving him a total of 80 for his two year career. Suffered from concussion in preseason camp that has put his starting assignment in jeopardy in battle with Johnny Williams and possibly Ben McGrath.(see below).
Ben McGrath, 6-2, 230 So., Milford, Oh. (Moeller)
Followed the path of former Wildcat star Jeff Snedegar by coming to Kentucky as a quarterback from Ohio and switching to linebacker. Played sparingly until injury to Braxton Kelly. Made 12 tackles in first start against Auburn. Went on to start final 4 games of the season, totaling 35 tackles and 4 tackles for loss. (more tackles per start than Kelly with 7.8 v. 6.3) With the talented Kelly back in the middle and Micah Johnson waiting in the wings, word out of camp is that McGrath is battling Joe Schuler and Johnny Williams for a starting spot at strongside linebacker.
Micah Johnson, 6-2, 255 Fr., Ft. Campbell, Ky. (Ft. Campbell)
Super-sized linebacker was rated an All American by every recruiting source available. Scout.com rated Johnson the # 9 overall player in the Country regardless of position, and ESPN rated him the #1 inside linebacker in the Country. With these credentials, Johnson will play this season. The question is where. Kelly is a great young talent who will be on the field somewhere and appears best suited to the middle. There is some possibility Johnson my play on the strongside and even get some snaps as a defensive end despite word from Johnson and coaches that his future is at the linebacker position.
Mikhail Mabry, 6-2, 235 So., Mililani, Ha. (Mililani)
Saw limited action as a reserve in 2005 as a greyshirt freshman making 5 tackles. Has apparently fallen behind somewhat in fall camp, and appears to be far down the depth chart at this point. May ultimately be moved to defensive end if he cannot crack the three deep at middle linebacker.
Johnny Williams, 6-3, 235 So., Jacksonville, Fla. (Fletcher)
Physical specimen with prototypical linebacker size and speed. Struggled with adjusting to mental aspects of the game as a greyshirt freshman in 2005, which can be explained somewhat by transition from high school defensive end to college linebacker. Still managed to see action in all 11 games and record 14 tackles, including 2 tackles for losses. Locked in a battle with Joe Schuler and possibly Ben McGrath for starting strongside linebacker spot. Has apparently taken a major step forward with understanding of the defense. If so, it will be difficult to keep the hard-hitting Williams off the field.
Chris Cessna, 6-3, 210 Fr., London, Ky. (N. Laurel)
Unclear at this point where Cessna will play, but strongside ‘backer looks to be a likely destination provided Cessna can fill in his frame over the next year or so. Will be redshirted in 2006 while continuing to rehab from knee injury that kept him inactive for most of his senior season. Rangy linebacker put up video game numbers as a high school junior with 161 tackles. Could be a solid player for Cats in two years or so.
Sam Maxwell, 6-3, 225 Fr., Hartwell, Ga. (Hart County)
The good news for the hard-hitting Maxwell is that he has been one of the freshman to get very positive reviews from the coaching staff, (Perhaps as much so as Micah Johnson.), and seems to be the top candidate for a backup spot at weakside linebacker. The bad news is that the starter is Wesley Woodyard, who will be on the field so long as he remains upright. Still, Maxwell probably will see the field on special teams and in a reserve capacity.
Brandon Thurmond, 6-2, 200 Fr., Rex, Ga. (Grady)
Like Cessna, it is difficult to tell exactly where Thurmond may end up, but the coaches do speak highly of him. His senior stats give a good reason for this. 117 tackles, 21 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and 6 fumbles recovered. With the way the depth chart appears above him, the best guess is that Thurmond redshirts to allow a year of weight gain and then pushes for minutes in 2007, possibly at weakside linebacker, where his speed will be an attribute.
Provided there is improvement along the defensive front that allows the linebackers room to operate without opposing offensive linemen inhibiting their every move, chances are good that Kentucky’s atrocious run defense from 2005 (and seemingly since the dawn of time) will improve. Much of the optimism centers around the LaGrange boys. Woodyard’s enthusiasm seems to ignite the rest of the defense, and Kelly has the potential to be the Cats’ best middle backer since Marty Moore provided his knee is healthy. Expect Schuler to shake the fog of a mid-camp concussion to get the opening nod at strongside linebacker, but both Williams and McGrath will get their chance to earn minutes throughout the season. Johnson is too talented to sit for long, and will find a spot somewhere on the field by midseason. All of this makes for a complicated puzzle for Archer and linebackers coach Chuck Smith to solve, but for once, at least all the pieces appear to be in the box.