LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Like a sports car, Kentucky's linebackers are going to be judged on how well they can go from zero to 60 this season.
From almost no playing time to nearly 60 plays per game, that is.
The academic loss of returning starter Ryan Murphy has left the Wildcats with only two "experienced" players at inside linebacker, seniors Ronnie Riley and Jamal White, who have combined for only six starts and 79 tackles in their UK careers. And technically speaking, Riley has never played inside for the Cats, spending his first three years at strong safety and outside linebacker before putting on almost 25 pounds during the offseason to take on the challenge.
"I don't really know why they haven't played more," said UK's new defensive coordinator, John Gooder. "But they're two of our more talented kids. They've got a lot of ability, a lot of leadership, and they're going to have to play a whole bunch for us this season. They're the guys we'll have to hang our hats with because we just don't have the depth at that position."
Goodner estimated his starters could play as much as 80 percent of the snaps this season, if they play well and are lucky enough to avoid major injuries. That's placed a premium on Riley and White getting in top condition during the summer.
"I'm not a big a substitution guy," Goodner said. "They've got to be ready to play as much as I need them to. But a lot of that will be determined by the flow of the game. If the offense is doing what I think they're able to do --- keeping us off the field and getting first downs and driving --- that will help as opposed to a bunch of three-and-outs.
"I don't want to die in the fourth quarter, either, but our kids work hard, and they're in good shape."
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Riley is ready for the challenge. His commitment was recently rewarded when the San Antonio native was elected the Cats' defensive captain by his teammates.
"I'm more than willing to take on that responsibility," Riley said. "There's got to be more than just one leader out there or you can't be a good team, but I feel that me and D.J. (Dennis Johnson) and a couple of other guys can all fill that role.
"For me, I take a lot of pride in myself, and I don't want to go through another 2-9 season. I don't think anyone around here is going to let that happen again. So you've got to have good leaders."
"He's got great enthusiasm, he's a smart kid, and he makes plays," Goodner said. "That's what you're looking for in a leader."
Riley, who started five games last year and finished with 23 tackles and one sack, said he's eager to test himself at inside linebacker.
"I love playing inside," he said. "I gained some weight to get in there and bang around. I added some muscle, added some strength, but I still maintained my speed, so I'm really excited to get out there and play. This is probably as excited as I've ever been about a football season. A lot of people think that we're going to be one of the worst defenses in the SEC, so I feel like we've got something to prove."
Another player looking to make a point should be starting alongside Riley. The 6-3, 223-pound White has been one of UK's most physically gifted players the last two years, but it has not translated into playing time (one career start) or performance (32 tackles, one sack) on the field.
During spring and fall drills, however, the Cincinnati native has often been a dominant force. Goodner hopes he can transfer that to the field on Saturdays.
"Jamal's one of the best looking kids you're going to find," said Goodner, noting White's 4.5 speed, 350-pound bench press and almost 40-inch vertical leap. "He's had a great camp. I'm expecting big things out of him."
"I think Jamal's going to have a great year," Riley added. "You look around here, he's just incredible. Nobody looks better than that guy."
"I feel like coach Goodner believes in me," White said. "That means a lot to know he's got confidence in you. I know I'm going to get to play a lot more this year, so I'm just trying to get myself ready to do the job."
Backing up Riley and White are junior Morris Lane (6-1, 207), senior Mike Beirne (6-3, 225) --- a converted wide receiver --- and redshirt freshman Anthony Stevenson (5-11, 228). True freshmen Dustin Williams, John Clay and Jacob Koch are also competing for playing time. Another newcomer who was expected to contend, prep All-American Chad Anderson, was declared academically ineligible after failing a core curriculum class.
Williams, a 6-5, 250-pound product of Channahan, Ill., looks most prepared to contribute.
"Dustin's a good kid, a good-looking kid who just needs a bunch of playing time," Goodner said. "The only thing he doesn't have is experience. He's s a big, strong kid who moves pretty well. He's really good versus the run, and probably needs a little bit more work against the pass. He's working at that, though, and getting better at it every day."
"We've also been getting (outside safety Chris) Gayton some reps inside of late. I think he's played a little bit there before, so if we need him, he'd be able to step in there."