November 11, 2011

Young linebackers are the next wave on defense

Kentucky's linebacking corps is about to undergo a radical transformation.

With three seniors -- Danny Trevathan, Winston Guy and Ronnie Sneed -- set to leave after this year and a fourth player, junior Ridge Wilson, set to follow just a year after, it's the kind of transformation that would alarm most coaches. But there's another wave of talent just over the horizon as a crop of freshmen and sophomores are ready to replace them.

"It's probably one of the deepest linebacker units we've had," redshirt freshman Malcom McDuffen.

McDuffen, along with true freshman Alvin Dupree, redshirt freshman Miles Simpson and sophomore Avery Williamson are all on the Kentucky two-deep. Though they've played in varying amounts this year, each has earned praise from the coaches this season.

"They're very athletic and we're excited about them," linebackers coach Chuck Smith said.

McDuffen has been hailed as the next Trevathan. He's speedy, albeit a bit undersized, and explosive in his tackling ability much like the SEC's leading tackler. Simpson, who backs up Guy, has played sparingly, but coaches talk about his athleticism and speed as well. He arrived at Kentucky as a running back.

Williamson has already cracked the rotation and earned a solid amount of playing time behind Sneed at middle linebacker. He was shy and overwhelmed when he first arrived on campus, but has blossomed under Sneed into one of the most vocal players on defense.

"That's the position that has to communicate everything, so we've done a good job of bringing him along," Smith said.

Dupree has also earned a fair amount of playing time behind Wilson and is expected to start this week as Wilson recovers from a shoulder injury. He tried out at tight end in fall camp before being moved to add depth on defense.

"He's got size, he's got range, he can run, has a lot of upside," Smith said. "Aggressive guy, we just have to teach him what to do."

But the depth doesn't even stop with the second unit. Players like Tim Patterson and Demarius Rancifer[/db] are currently on the scout team, but will still be counted on for depth in the near future. Smith said he's counting on those two to improve their knowledge of the system in the offseason in preparation for increased roles next year.

That's not unusual for players of their age. Even McDuffen and Dupree still have a lot to learn, Smith said.

"All of them possess the tools that we're looking for," Smith said. "We just have to develop them. There will be days when they're looking good, and days when they're having a rough day."

Potential is a word Smith still uses a lot when discussing the younger linebackers. It's up to him, he says, to make sure that potential is developed into a finish product.

That's a challenge the youngsters are ready to take on.

"From the older guys to the younger guys, we're ready to play," Dupree said. "Ready to compete."

It's not an entirely unfamiliar situation for Smith. He had to break in two new starters at linebacker before the 2010 season, when Trevathan was the only returning player with any experience.

Then, there was some doubt in his mind about how they would replace Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell. This time it'll be different.

"None at all," Smith said. "I think the seniors we have now have been good examples for those younger guys, and the younger guys have taken advantage of the opportunity to learn."

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