LEXINGTON, Ky. --- One of Mike Beirne's least favorite duties as a Kentucky wide receiver was going across the middle of the field while an ill-tempered linebacker bumped and grabbed and waited to tee off on him.
Thanks to a strange twist of fate, Beirne is now on the more favorable side of that scenario.
The Wildcats learned Tuesday that senior inside linebacker Ronnie Riley, who was injured in the fourth quarter of the season opener against Louisville, has a tear in both the ACL and MCL of his right knee. He will miss the remainder of the season and will likely apply for a medical redshirt. Riley is the latest in a series of losses at the position, including Ryan Murphy (academics), Jamal White (two-game suspension), Chad Anderson (academics) and Morris Lane (ankle injury).
While UK defensive coordinator John Goodner describes the team's adversity at linebacker as difficult as any he's ever faced, he's trying to keep a positive outlook. "It's an opportunity for someone else to play," he said.
That means Beirne, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior, will be thrust into a starting role on Saturday against Ball State only five months removed from his career as a wide receiver. He thinks his experience from the offensive side will help him be a more effective linebacker.
"No receiver likes to be touched when they're running their route," said the Woodlands, Texas, native. "I know what the receivers hate. When they come across the middle, they hate to get hit. They hate it when you put your hands on them."
Beirne had literally no linebacker experience heading into his senior year with the Cats. He was high school receiver and cornerback, playing only one game --- to the best of his knowledge --- at linebacker.
When he was approached by Goodner during offseason conditioning about the opportunity to try a new position, he didn't know how to react.
"I thought he was kidding," Beirne said. "I thought he was just joking. But coach (Rick) Smith said it, too, so that's when I thought they may be serious. I didn't know much about it, but they kept asking me to try it out.
"A year ago, if you told me I was going to be in this position, I would have laughed at you."
But it was an offer too good to pass up. After all, the UK roster showed roughly 20 players at the various wide receiver positions --- with Beirne tucked in as a third-stringer --- and the Cats had a need to build depth at linebacker.
That depth is now being rapidly depleted, so Beirne must be ready to make big plays for an improving UK defense.
"It was tough at first, but coming through camp we've had lots of practices," Beirne said. "I feel adjusted. I'm ready to go."
He played a handful of snaps in last week's game, recording no tackles but one quarterback "hurry."
Asked what he was thinking during his first plays as a collegiate defender, Beirne said: "I didn't have time to think. I'd repped it so much, you just go."
This week, he expects to be under a larger microscope.
"Stop the run is our main purpose," he said. "That's the way the defense is designed. At the beginning of camp, playing the run was a weakness. But after experiencing it and seeing plays time and time again, it's starting to come natural."
"We'll rep him hard and simplify things a bit and give him something he can execute," Goodner said. "...It's been a pretty big culture shock for him compared to what he's been doing the last three or four years, but he's done well."
Riley was recognized as one of the Cats' leaders this season, as evidenced by his being voted one of two team captains this summer. His loss means the UK defense must also fill a leadership void.
"I think I can do that," Beirne said. "This is my last year. I've got to step up."