Part six in an eight part series previewing the 2007 University of Kentucky Football Wildcats.
Football, by its inherent violent nature, is a game that can radically transform a player’s career in the bat of an eye, or more accurately, the snap of a knee. Kentucky linebacker Braxton Kelly may be facing the second such injury-induced transformation of his young career. Kelly came to Kentucky in 2005 as a defensive end turned linebacker out of recent UK pipeline La Grange, Georgia. Kelly was immediately a starter, and as his freshman campaign progressed, showed signs of becoming the stalwart of the middle of the Kentucky defense for the foreseeable future. Then, during a November victory over Mississippi State in Commonwealth, Kelly tore his ACL while covering a kick. In that one hard luck instant, Kelly’s fast track to football stardom was put in immediate jeopardy, and he was forced to begin the journey all over again.
In 2006, Kelly was in uniform and on the field by the first game, but he was not back. It was apparent to all who had seen Kelly throw his body around with reckless abandon as a freshman, that he was moving tentatively, as if he were on the field in roller skates. As the season wore on, however, Kelly’s confidence in his knee and his game grew. By the UT and Clemson games, Kelly was teaming up with fellow “Granger” Wesley Woodyard on highlight quality hits all over the field, just as he had prior to his injury. That momentum carried over through the spring and summer and on into fall drills. As camp opened, Kelly was fully healthy and brimming with confidence looking for all the world like the best Kentucky middle linebacker since Marty Moore. Again, in one relatively meaningless fall practice snap, everything changed. Kelly suffered the dreaded high ankle sprain, and was forced to sit out the remainder of fall camp. Fortunately for Braxton and the Cats, this injury did not compare in severity to the knee injury he suffered almost two years ago. (Although Dennis Johnson did once famously miss an entire season with the same injury.) Kelly took his first full practice reps on Tuesday, and may be ready for the first game, but his injury has placed him in another form of career jeopardy. It has allowed the much-hyped Micah Johnson to take all of the first team fall practice reps, and earn the starting job for the Eastern game. Thus, despite all of his abilities, Kelly runs the risk of being “Wally Pipped” by Johnson, who has drawn considerable praise for his improvement. Despite this very real concern, Kelly is simply too good to sit. Should the coaches elect to leave Johnson at middle linebacker, it seems likely Kelly will find the field the field elsewhere. Wherever that is, Kentucky fans hope he can avoid transformational snap number three.
Wesley Woodyard 6-1, 212 Sr., LaGrange, GA (LaGrange)
Second in the Conference in tackles in 2006, trailing only first round NFL draft pick Patrick Willis. Numbers include 122 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception and 4 forced fumbles. Emotional leader of defense along with safety Marcus McClinton. Just named to the Butkus watch list.
Michael Schwindel 6-2, 210 So., Hawesville, KY (Hancock County)
Made off-season move from safety to linebacker after playing sparingly as a freshman in 2006. Coaches like the speed he provides at the position, as well as his aggressive style. Will benefit from the tutelage of Woodyard, who possesses similar skill set.
A.J. Nance 5-11, 250 So., Knoxville, TN (Central)
Despite the walk-on tag, Nance is in serious hunt for the backup spot here. Played in all 13 games last season, mostly on special teams.
Micah Johnson 6-2, 254 So., Ft. Campbell, KY (Ft. Campbell)
For many players, a true freshman season that included 13 games played, 2 starts, 29 tackles and a rushing touchdown would be considered a rousing success. However, with the colossal expectations placed on Johnson, it was considered by some fans, and Johnson himself, to be a bitter disappointment. Now, with a year under his belt, the loss of twenty pounds, and an injury to incumbent starter Braxton Kelly, Johnson is ready to show why he was a high school All-American.
Braxton Kelly 6-0, 226 Jr., LaGrange, GA (LaGrange)
Kelly started 2006 slowly, as he looked to battle back from his 2005 knee reconstruction. By the end of the season, Kelly looked like the explosive hitter who burst onto the scene as a freshman starter in 2005. Second on squad to Woodyard last season with 82 tackles.
Mikhail Mabry 6-2, 235 So., Mililani, HA (Mililani)
Redshirted last season after playing significant minutes his freshman year. Could provide some depth at linebacker or defensive end if necessary.
Johnny Williams 6-3, 240 Jr., Neptune Beach, FL (Fletcher)
Based on recent comments from Brooks, Williams managed to hold off challenger Sam Maxwell in camp. Showed flashes of his ability in 2006, but was somewhat inconsistent. Totaled 35 tackles and 1 interception.
Sam Maxwell 6-3, 225 So., Hartwell, GA (Hart County)
Lost the battle with Johnny Williams, but will undoubtedly see the field. Has the best speed of any of the strongside backers. Played in 12 games in 2006, mostly in a special teams capacity.
Terry Clayton 6-1, 251 Sr., Olmstead, KY (Logan County)
Notable for his outstanding off-the-field accomplishments, Clayton has earned 2 varsity letters and made the SEC Academic Honor Roll despite limitation of being legally deaf.
Chris Cessna 6-4, 220 Fr., London, KY (N. Laurel)
Received second major injury in spring practice and will likely redshirt in 2007. Grayshirted in 2006, so will still have four years of eligibility beginning in 2008.
Brandon Thurmond 6-2, 215 Fr.-RS, Rex, GA (Grady)
Unlikely to play this year after blowing out his knee in the spring. Coaches raved about him up until the injury, even projecting him as a possible starter in 2007. If he can recover fully, will be a favorite for a starting spot in 2008.
Jacob Defrene 6-2, 210 Fr., CutOff, LA (John Curtis Chrsitian)
First team all-state in Louisiana. I initially thought it very likely that he would redshirt, but game week press conference from Brooks indicated that Dufrene would likely play. His role is likely to be primarily on special teams, as he is in contention for long snapping duties, but he could see time as a linebacker if needed.
Ronnie Sneed 6-2, 230 Fr., Tallahassee, FL (Florida)
First team all-state in Florida will likely redshirt.
Kentucky returns a seasoned and talented group of linebackers, with the starting group returning intact from last season. Woodyard is as good of an outside linebacker as there is in America, and is the heart and soul of the Kentucky defense. Kelly, at 100 percent, is a tackling machine who consistently arrives at the ball carrier in an unpleasant mood. Williams came on strong toward the end of 2006, when he seemed to finally “get” what Kentucky’s coaching staff wanted from him. Of course, the elephant in the room is Micah Johnson, who has to see the field somewhere. As for concerns, none of the linebackers are burners by SEC standards, although Woodyard has solid speed as a former safety. Kelly and Williams need to improve their coverage skills to become dependable in passing situations. As for depth, the coaches obviously like the backup at middle backer, be it Johnson or Kelly, and at strongside, where Maxwell is more than capable. The major concern is weakside, where no one but Woodyard has taken a meaningful snap. If Kentucky’s fans and coaches have it their way, that trend will continue for one more year.