A true freshman will make his first start in an uninviting environment, but Chris Oats’ teammates and coaches believe the former four-star recruit is up for the challenge.
Kentucky’s starting middle linebacker and defensive captain, Kash Daniel, is suspended for the first half of the Cats’ game at Kyle Field after he was ejected for a targeting penalty in the third quarter against South Carolina. Now Oats must step up and call the defense from the Mike linebacker position.
“He earned it in practice,” said defensive coordinator Matt House. “In the game it showed up. He was physical in the game. The atmosphere wasn’t too big for him and I thought he made some plays.”
Oats made four tackles in about 20 minutes of game action while filling in for Daniel last Saturday. Josh Allen believes Oats will fill in seamlessly in the first half against Texas A&M.
“We’re built for this. We’re a better defense,” Allen said. “It’s not going to be a drop off because Chris knows what he needs to do. He’s played football with us and we know how he is. We’re going to have his back through anything.”
Playing middle linebacker isn’t easy. The Mike must make sure the defense is properly aligned and the correct calls are made, but not everything falls on the freshman’s shoulders. He’s surrounded by seniors who have played a lot football.
“Jordan (Jones) has gotta help him, no doubt about it,” said House. “But at the end of the day, Chris is still the Mike and our Mike’s in charge of setting the front and setting the pressures when we pressure. Jordan will have to help him communicate.”
Communicating through the Kyle Field noise will not be easy, but House believes Oats is bright enough to follow through with his assignments. The physical part should be the easiest part for him to handle.
“He’s got great length. He’s physical. He’s really smart for a freshman. He’s doing some good things,” said House.
It’s not ideal for a freshman to make his first start in a hostile environment, even one as talented as Oats. Landon Young made a few early mistakes at Florida three years ago before he finally settled in at left tackle. Oats may make a few rookie mistakes early in the game, but he has the physical tools and the talent around him to steady the ship until Kash is unleashed in the second half.