Part six in an eight part series previewing the 2014 Kentucky Football Wildcats.
Kentucky linebackers look to bring the pain train.
PRESEASON DEPTH CHART (newcomers not included):
Josh Forrest 6-3, 236 Jr. Paducah, KY (Tilghman)
TraVaughn Paschal 6-4, 257 Sr. Odenton, MD
Tyler Brause 6-4, 240 Sr. Sycamore, OH
Dorian Hendrix 6-0, 230 Fr-HS Huber Heights, OH
Khalid Henderson 6-1, 228 Jr. Mableton, GA
Daron Blaylock 6-1, 214 Jr. Marietta, GA
Tre’ Dunn 6-2, 225 Sr. Harrodsburg, KY (Mercer County)
Grant Aumiller 6-0, 210 Sr. Danville, KY (Boyle County)
Blake McClain 5-11, 194 So. Winter Park, FLA
Eric Dixon 5-11, 193 Sr. Mobile, AL
Of all the debate and wringing of hands over the Kentucky quarterback competition, no position on the Kentucky roster is more shrouded in mystery than the linebacker position. Kentucky fans, and maybe even Kentucky coaches, do not know who will be under center for the Cats for the first offensive snap on August 30, but we can say with relative certainty that only one quarterback will take the field for that opening snap. At linebacker, on the other hand, it is a not just a question of who but of what. Kentucky’s primary personnel, as well as its preferred style of play, remains an enigma at the linebacker position. At any given time, the Cats could field two, three or even four linebackers. And whatever the number of players at the position, who is the bell cow? Does Kentucky have a game changer in the mold of Marty Moore, Wesley Woodyard or Danny Trevathan to boost Mark Stoops’ defense into the realm of respectability in year two of his Kentucky reclamation project?
Kentucky promotes itself as being “multiple” on defense. In other words, the Cats can adjust their defensive formation to match the offensive scheme they are facing on a given week. With that said, the majority of defensive snaps last season were played with four down linemen, two linebackers and a nickel (hybrid defensive back who comes up near the line of scrimmage in run support and is typically responsible for covering slot receivers.) The fact that this alignment is also what is featured in this year’s edition of the Media Guide likely confirms that Kentucky will spend the majority of defensive snaps operating out of that formation. As with many positions on the Kentucky roster, there appear to be two fairly distinctive groups of contending players: a group with experience, but possibly less athletic ability, and a more highly-regarded group looking to challenge the vets for playing time.
At this point, it seems fairly likely that Kentucky will start veteran players at the linebacker and nickel positions during the early portion of the season. Former Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado Josh Forrest, who came to Lexington as a wide receiver, appears to have earned the starting spot at middle linebacker. (“Mike linebacker” if you are a football aficionado like our illustrious benefactor Mr. Jones.) Forrest, who has played in 21 career games as a Wildcat, made the transition to the middle linebacker position last season. As a former receiver, his speed and athleticism, as well as his 6-3 frame, are outstanding assets in moving sideline to sideline and in pass coverage. The real question is whether he can make the mental transition to linebacker, and consistently arrive at the ball carrier in a bad mood. The likely starter at weakside linebacker is junior Khalid Henderson. Henderson had his best season as a Cat in 2013, starting seven games, and recording 51 tackles. Like Forrest, Henderson has the physical tools to be an excellent linebacker, but has taken time to adjust to the mental side of the college game. The third starter will be sophomore Blake McClain at nickel. McClain was not one of Stoops’ most prized recruits in his first year in Lexington, but proved to be one of his most valuable. Playing the exceedingly diverse and difficult nickel position, McClain started the final eleven games of 2013 as a true freshman, recording 59 tackles. Aside from Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, McClain might be the most valuable player on the Kentucky defense.
Though I think it likely that the veteran group enters the season as starters, there is a talented collection of newcomers at the linebacker position threatening to knock down the door to meaningful playing time. The leader of that charge is junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan. Flannigan, a 6-2, 225 pound transfer from Missouri City Texas, was a top 200 player nationally as a high school senior. Likely the most physically gifted of all the linebackers on the Kentucky roster, Flannigan could play any of the linebacker positions. Only his late arrival to campus (the day prior to opening camp) will likely cause him to be out of the starting group as he learns the defensive system. Another newcomer who will certainly see playing time is Kendall Randolph. Initially projected to be a corner at the college level, this four star true freshman from Tallahassee is currently backing up Blake McClain at nickel. Stoops has been so impressed with him that he has contemplated moving McClain to safety on occasion to get both players on the field at the same time. True freshman Kobie Walker, Dorian Hendrix and four star Nico Firios have tremendous upside, but will likely redshirt this season.