Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced that senior Ryan Flannigan, the expected starter at weakside linebacker, will likely miss the first game due to a lingering shoulder injury which has prevented him from going through contact drills in practice this week.
In Flannigan’s place, the Cats are preparing to move forward with a trio that includes senior Khalid Henderson and two “true” freshmen - Jordan Jones and Eli Brown. Jones, who impressed the UK staff early in fall camp, just returned to practice this week after dealing with an undisclosed illness. Ordinarily, that might knock a young player out of consideration, but Stoops said Thursday that Jones has not missed a beat, labeling him "a different bird."
“Jordan’s looking really good,” the UK boss said. “Matter of fact, he’s had a really good couple of practices. It was good to have him back out here. He’s come back fresh and looked fast, really didn’t look like he’s lost anything mentally. He’s got good instincts. He’ll play quite a bit (Saturday).”
Stoops said a decision on a starter has yet to be made. Henderson, a 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior with 36 games and 15 career starts under his belt, may offer more experience than Jones, but the staff is extremely high on the 6-foot-2, 215-pound native of Youngstown, Ohio. Some rumblings around the Nutter Training Center have compared him to a young Wesley Woodyard at the same stage in their careers.
As a senior at Cardinal Mooney High School, Jones recorded an eye-popping 185 tackles, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles. He was rated as a Top 40 outside linebacker by every major scouting service.
“He’s just got good instincts and a nose to get to the football,” Stoops said. “Those things, and he’s picked things up and been sharp with his assignments. You put all that together, and I’m anxious to see him play.”
Fortunately for Kentucky, the defense has an experienced leader at middle linebacker in the form of senior All-SEC candidate Josh Forrest. He should be flanked by senior Jabari Johnson at strongside linebacker, redshirt freshman Denzil Ware at the hybrid "Jack" position and Flannigan's replacement in the Cats' 3-4 scheme.
Asked if the UK staff was being cautious with Flannigan, who is expected to be one of the team’s top defensive players this season, in order to save him for more important games later in the schedule, Stoops scoffed.
“I can’t tell you how much no… That’s not even close to what I’m thinking,” Stoops said. “If he’s ready to play, he’d play. I don’t make those decisions, and I don’t influence anybody. The doctors telll me if they can play, and they play. I don’t go anywhere near those decisions.
“I have a great medical staff. Jim Madaleno does a great job. I trust him, I trust the doctors, and that’s out of my hands. If they gave him the green light to play, he’d play. This game is extremely important.”