The newly implemented 4-3 defense was ineffective at times last year because of personnel problems, which means the Wildcat coaching staff needed to groom several new players whom will be making position changes.
Redshirt sophomore Dominic Lewis made his third position change in as many seasons, moving from TE/RB to Defensive End and former linebackers - Cedric Koger, Tedd Bullock, and Durrell White moved from their respective linebacking spots to end in hopes of adding additional speed on the outside.
"Dominic looks like a guy that can help us over there at defensive end," Coach Rich Brooks said following a recent spring practice, "and I've been very pleased with Durrell White's play at defensive end. He's made that transition, well."
All in all, spring practice proved that while the transition will most likely be a smooth one for at least two of the four, the Wildcats will need to utilize the summer effectively if they are hoping to produce a defensive front capable of doing some damage.
"We're stronger in some areas than we were last year," Senior B. Jay Parsons said, "I think it will come down to how easy some of these new guys make the switch as to how effective we can be, early in the season."
Prior to the spring, Bullock was listed second on the depth chart at left end, behind Parsons, while White was listed as number one at right end, with Oninku slotted in front of Koger and Lewis.
"We've got some guys who can help us," Defensive line coach Rick Petri said, "It's all about getting down the terminology and the angles. At linebacker you've got a chance to roam around and pick your spots. From the line, you've got to pick your spots earlier."
Shuler on the rise
Look out for sophomore linebacker Joe Schuler this fall. He's possibly the best of the returning linebackers and by far the most athletic and physically gifted of the group. According to linebackes coach Chuck Smith, it's not whether he'll play a lot, it's where.
"At the end of spring, we hope to have an idea of what position we're going to play our players at," Smith said, "whether they're going to be a strong side, middle or weak side LB. We are evaluating their progress daily. Joe is having a great spring practice, though. We're looking for great things from Joe this coming fall. We've tried him at the strong and middle LB position. He looks good at both."
With Jon Sumrall having to give up football after winning the starting job at middle linebacker, Schuler may have to step in for him this fall. If that is the case, there is a ‘strong' possibility a grayshirt freshmen could start at strong linebacker in the first game against Louisville.
Freshmen: ‘Better be ready'
In his post-signing day press conference, coach Rich Brooks indicated that his 2005 recruiting class was a better recruiting class then the highly publicized 2004 signing class that featured high profiled talent such as Micah Jones, Marcus McClinton and Lonnell DeWalt.
If anything has become clear after spring practice, it's that the masses better hope that Brooks' proclamation comes true.
Punter Tim Masthay, Linebackers Kelley, Bates, Jackson and Maxwell, and a host of defensive lineman will get a shot at playing time come the fall.
"I think Tim (Masthay)'s chances are pretty good," Brooks said of possibly starting a freshmen. "The thought all along was that Tim will be competing to be the punter, and in all probability will be the punter next year. We will have to do a lot of work with him, obviously, to get him ready for the fall."
With junior college transfer Kalavi Blanchard set to be added to an already improving offensive line, the Wildcats might be able to afford grayshirting an up-and-coming offensive lineman, such as Christian Johnson, Jorge Gonzalez or James Alexander, in favor of a Defensive Lineman this fall.
One encouraging sign is that it does appear that we will be seeing freshmen Jamaal Jackson and Sam Maxwell in Lexington in August. At least that's what is being made from defensive coordinator, Mike Archer's comments.
Words like that are extremely encouraging considering how depleted that position seems to be and the question mark that had surrounded Jackson and Maxwell's eligibility.
Speaking of eligible freshmen, the probability of guessing all the grayshirts has gotten a bit clearer.
Kenny Ray Turner, Jeremy Jarmon, Jordan Nevels and Mike Cross appear to be solid candidates. Turner and Cross are all but locked into the grayshirt slot because of grade issues, and while Jarmon's grades are fine, his age and immaturity make him a perfect January enrollee.
The last and final grayshirt spot is still up for grabs. One-time candidates Michael Schwindel, Ben Bates, and Ventrell Jenkins have all confirmed enrollment in the fall in some form or fashion, leaving the idea that with the improved play of the offensive line and the expected arrival of Kalavi Blanchard, the ‘Cats will more than likely grayshirt one of their incoming offensive lineman if Garry Williams becomes eligible.
This is all speculation at this point, as nothing can be confirmed until they enroll in the fall.
One thing that has been confirmed; Corey Goodson will be headed to prep school and will become a recruit-able athlete again next year. Goodson is headed to a prep school in Virginia.
2006 recruiting: ‘UK will own state'
It's early, but the exit polls heading into the summer are far better then they were last season, where the ‘Cats were headed for near doom inside the Bluegrass state.
"They've done a phenomenal job of getting inside the homes of some of these kids early, whereas I think Louisville has focused a lot of attention out of state," a Jefferson county high school coach told me yesterday, "I think UK will own the state this year. A lot of the top recruits are true blue already and the fact Kentucky's made it a point to get in there early will pay dividends."
"The swing kids (the ones who could go out-of-state or to Louisville) are gonna be looking at how much coverage the Big East will get," he said, "I just don't see the Big East getting huge in this state. Not with SEC football competing, even if Kentucky doesn't win 5 games."
The coach cited Louisville's success, the pro-cardinal lean of the top kids in the state and a relatively poor recruiting job of some of the state's best players early as reasons why UK lost out on the state this past season. "They'll get their act together this year and those kids that left the state won't be pleased to hear the kids that replaced them, are now starting at Kentucky."
Salute to Barnhart
As I always do in every rumor mill article, I gotta once again give some love out to everyone's favorite A.D.
Ditch Mitch you say? Well, after a yearly campaign that included an SEC Championship in Men's Golf, Women's Tennis and Men's Basketball, the only one worth ditching are the masses that chose to give up on him.
Only a total collapse in the post-season will ruin Barnhart's most successful run in the spring season as athletic director at Kentucky. Both his tennis programs boast current top 12 national rankings, his softball program is showing signs of improvement already under first year coach Beth Pruitt, his men's baseball program is a year away from competing for the NCAA Tournament and last but not least – his men's and women's track and field program are finally back to respectability.
Couple that with a winter that included a sensational finish by the men's and women's swimming and diving team, a nationally ranked gymnastics squad, and an NIT final four appearance by his women's basketball team and you've got yourself a heckuva year for one heckuva leader.
The fact the Women's Tennis team already boasts a national runner-up in indoor tennis means when the final Sears Cup rankings are released, the Wildcats will have their best finish in school history.
And we've only just begun.