Kentucky Wildcats long on talent, short on experience at linebacker positions

When Kentucky opened spring practice this week at the Nutter Training Center, it had to feel a little odd for the coaches and veteran players to look across the line of scrimmage and not see No. 45 in the middle of the Wildcats' defense.

Josh Forrest, who recorded 203 tackles for UK the last two years en route to All-SEC honors, has graduated and is currently pursuing a career at the next level. His departure, as well as that of Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson and the dismissal of Jason Hatcher, has left the Cats with some big question marks in the linebacker corps heading into 2016.

It may be inaccurate to describe the situation as an "empty cupboard," however, according to UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

"At linebacker, we're very young but very talented," Eliot said Thursday after the second of 15 spring practices the Cats will conduct between this week and the Blue/White Game on April 16.

Eliot was also quick to note, while fans have yet to see them on the field in blue and white, transfers Courtney Love (a 6-foot-2, 245-pound junior from Nebraska) and De'Niro Laster (a 6-4, 235-pound junior from Minnesota) should be ready to give the Cats some immediate maturity in the unit after sitting out last season.

"Courtney Love has been a starter at a major college program, so he's been there. He's been in the fire. He's very mature," Eliot said. "He just needs to pick up our scheme. I'm not concerned about him not having game experience in a hostile environment because he's been there and been successful, so that's encouraging to have a guy at the 'Mike' backer, that position.

"De'Niro has been playing outside linebacker for us, and I'm seeing a guy who's very fast and is good in space for an outside linebacker. He, again, has a great attitude, plays with a lot of enthusiasm. He, like Courtney, has been there. He's played in some big games against big programs. He brings that to the table as well."

After Love and Laster, the experience factor drops dramatically. With Denzil Ware now listed as a defensive end, sophomores Josh Allen, Jordan Jones and Nico Firios are the only returning linebackers who made a tackle in 2015. Between them, they had 15.

"Our other linebackers, really don't have much, if any game experience, but they're very talented," Eliot said. "Jordan Jones can run and Eli Brown can run. Nico (Firios) and Kash Daniels have size and speed... Kobie Walker, for his size, is very athletic. He can cover like a DB, yet he's big enough where he can play the run like a linebacker.

"So they have all the tools; we've just got to get them ready."

Daniel (6-1, 235) was the Bluegrass State's "Mr. Football" and a U.S. Army All-American. After leaving Paintsville High School early to enroll at UK in January, he's expected to make an immediate impact in his freshman season. He'll likely begin his career getting backup reps to Love in the middle of the defense.

Allen, a 6-5 athlete who has bulked up almost 25 pounds since arriving at UK last year out of New Jersey, is being counted on to provide some much-needed pressure on the quarterback. The Cats had only 17 sacks as a team last season, and players who accounted for 13 of those have now departed.

"I feel like I can bring some swagger back with the pass rush," Allen said Thursday. "... We're going to get to the quarterback this year, there's no doubt."


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