LEXINGTON — Kentucky lost its leading two tacklers — linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy — off last year’s 5-7 team. The Cats also graduated inside linebacker Ronnie Sneed, one of the team’s most improved players last season.
The Wildcats were counting on senior Ridge Wilson, a returning starter, to anchor the linebackers, but he was dismissed from the team in the offseason after a drug arrest during the offseason.
Chuck Smith and defensive coordinator Rick Minter a major rebuilding job that they have started during spring practice. Smith shared these thoughs on the linebackers’ progress midway of spring practice:
Question: How have the linebackers been doing this spring?
Smith: “They are coming along. If you look at the roster, they are all freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Avery Williamson is the oldest, and he’s a sophomore. We are really young and have to be real patient. But I¿do think they are coming along. It’s the second year into coach (Rick) Minter’s system. They are starting to learn the terminology better. They have heard it before. They are understanding the package a little bit better, but we still have a long ways to go. No question about that.”
Question: How valuable is the playing experience that Williamson and Alvin Dupree got at the end of last season?
Smith: “It was very valuable. They are ones who have been in the game. They are the ones who have that game experience and it goes a long ways. The other guys kind of look to them even though they are young in age to be leaders in that group. I think Avery has done a great job of being a leader. He has kind of taken over the leadership of the whole linebacking corp and Alvin is way ahead of anybody else his age and has done a nice job. You have to remember that Alvin is still a freshman and didn’t even start out at linebacker when he got here. He was a tight end. He has picked it up real fast. He is a real sharp kid. He has great potential and has a chance to be a really, really good football player. We expect a lot out of him. What is good is that he expects a lot out of himself.”
Question: What about the other players?
Smith: “Malcom McDuffen is way ahead of himself from last year. He is really picking it up and starting to gain confidence. Tyler Brause was moved to the inside position and he has taken off with it. Kind of position suited for him because he is a real sharp and intelligent kid. That position has to be sharp and intelligent and he has been a real pleasant surprise in there. Demarius Rancifer, another inside linebacker, is coming along. He is starting to get bogged down right now with a lot of information like most freshmen do, but I have been pleased with his play. When he knows what to do, he does a pretty decent job.
“Outside Miles Simpson is coming along pretty solid. He is ahead of where he was last year, which you expect him to be. We have a couple of guys backing him up that are showing a lot of promise in Josh Forrest, who is real long and runs really good and has a chance to be a really nice player. Along with (junior college transfer) Kory Brown who came in. Backing up Alvin is a guy we just moved to that position, TraVaughn Paschal. He is really struggling understanding what to do, but he has a lot of talent and potential.”
Question: Does it change what you do as a coach when you lose all four starting linebackers?
Smith: “You have to spend more time on fundamentals and techniques because they are all young. They have not had enough of it. You have to really pick your game up as a coach when you have a bunch of young guys. That is what we’ve got and we are really staying after them, trying to get them to understand what to do but also teach them technique and fundamentals. Then you have to decide at some point what has to come first — the assignments or the technique. So you have to juggle that around.”
Question: Is Williamson comfortable enough in his role that he can help younger players with their assignments?
Smith: “Not quite there yet. I think he will be at some point, but not quite yet. Really he is kind of young. He was just a part-time starter last year, so he is young, too. Hopefully by fall he will be able to help with some of that stuff.”
Question: Not only is this your youngest unit at Kentucky, but isn’t this the most guys you have had that have started at other spots and moved to linebacker?
Smith: “This is a challenge, a big challenge. The linebackers are taking on that as well. We just have to keep plugging away and every day make a little bit more progress.”
Question: Does Brown’s personality make him fun to coach?
Smith: “He wants to play. He is real eager to learn. He is conscientious about what is being said and how he responds to it. I like him a lot. He has a lot of potential and we have high hopes for him. He is one of the guys who comes in and asks for one-on-one attention, and that’s always good stuff. They have to get it down.”
Question: What do your guys have to do this summer to make sure they are ready for preseason camp?
Smith: “They are being taught the scheme now, so they will do a lot of seven-on-seven with the offense during the summer. They will run through some of these blitzes and mostly run through the coverages. They are still learning. They will be in the weight room. It never stops. They will be in the film room watching film. Coach Minter has done some voice-overs that they will hear. It’s just a continuing learning experience.”
Question: Is that time where a player like Williamson can be even more valuable as a leader?
Smith: “Exactly. Coaches can’t be with them, so the older, experienced guys will watch film with the younger guys and help them along.”