As a new coach on Kentucky’s staff teaching a position he’d never coached before, Dean Hood wasn’t sure what to expect.
But just watching his outside linebackers go through drills in spring practice, Hood immediately felt better.
“Those kids have no problem with work,” Hood said of starters Josh Allen and Denzil Ware shortly after he was hired. “I’ve noticed just an incredible intensity and willingness to do things right.”
Hood didn’t have to know all of the nuances of the position — one he’s fully immersed in now — to know that Kentucky’s Allen and Ware could be special.
He just needed to watch them go through drills.
“As a coach, the first thing you’re looking for is effort,” Hood continued. “How hard do they go? And then the second thing is are they doing it right? Are they following instructions? When coaches say touch the line are they touching the line? When they say go around the cone to the left, are they going around the cone to the left? Those little things really, really matter.”
Slowly, as he got to know the now junior outside linebackers, he was able to start working with them on the finer details of their craft, which has helped them become even more dangerous.
They showed flashes of brilliance last season for Kentucky.
In just their first season of playing at those outside linebacker spots full-time, Allen and Ware put up pretty significant numbers.
Playing similar positions to NFL-bound Cats Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, Allen and Ware put up nearly identical numbers last season.
Ware and Allen combined for 132 total tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.
In their final season at UK, Dupree and Smith combined for 135 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
“Now they’re trying to get 12 (sacks) individually,” backup outside linebacker Jordan Bonner said of the focus of his teammates Ware and Allen. “We’re all working to get there.”
And Hood is trying to help them. The longtime defensive coordinator and secondary coach took what he saw on tape of Allen and Ware and tried to help them focus on the finer points, the details.
Hood pointed specifically to footwork, avoiding unnecessary steps, getting good hand placement as areas of improvement.
The coaches have changed the players’ stance slightly, which has made the outside backers “more comfortable laterally and vertically,” Ware said. “They gave us some plays to give us more freedom. It makes it easier on both of us to just make plays.”
Hood has added even more pursuit drills to try to increase UK’s chances of getting to the quarterback.
“When you’ve got a mature, older player, they want to be great,” he said this spring of Allen and Ware. “They’re going to want to do it exactly how you say it and exactly when you say it. It’s a process with them right now with some different footwork and some different things we’re doing, but they’re really getting after it and trying their best and that filters down.”
Kentucky’s head coach has seen a big jump from both outside linebackers in camp.
“They’ve been really good,” Mark Stoops said after Saturday’s closed scrimmage at Kroger Field. “We did some two-minute (drills), like I talked about. We did some two-minute this week, a couple days, and in predictable pass situation they’ve been very good, very tough to block.”
This could be a big season for Allen, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound player, who led the Southeastern Conference in forced fumbles with four. That closer attention to detail is helping.
“He’s a guy that when he puts the fine strokes on things, he’s going to be a very good football player,” Stoops said. “What I like (is) the maturity that I’m seeing out of him.
“He came in the other day just to talk about some things, and we just sat down and had a nice conversation and I like what I see out of him. I could tell he’s very focused and interested in taking it to another level.”
And one only need ask the coordinator on the other side of the ball about disruptive defenders to hear Ware’s name. The junior, who has started 19 straight games, is tough to contain.
“He’s got a great first move, he gets low, he’s athletic, his speed rush is crazy,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Ware this spring. “And if you don’t get back vertical then you’re gonna be in trouble.”
Scouting the Cats
This is the second of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team position by position.
Scouting the linebackers
The main man: After a rookie season where he managed just 10 tackles mostly on special teams, junior middle linebacker Jordan Jones made a name for himself quickly last season, racking up nearly 100 more tackles than the season before (109), including 15.5 for loss and four quarterback sacks. He’s the Energizer Bunny for the veteran linebacker group. Jones was named to Second Team All-SEC for his efforts last season.
The supporting cast: A linebacker room that was filled with more question marks than playmakers a season ago is now loaded with proven talent and some highly touted newcomers, too. Jones is joined in the middle by senior Courtney Love, third on the team in tackles with 76, and its most vocal defender. Jones and Love have able-bodied backups pushing for more time in Kash Daniel and Eli Brown. Outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen are becoming a dangerous pass-rushing duo for Kentucky and put up impressive numbers last season. Their backups, Jordan Bonner and Jamar “Boogie” Watson, likely will see extended playing time this season along with several new players that have the coaches’ attention, most notably Josh Paschal and Jordan Wright.
Outlook: Kentucky started last season with almost zero returning experience at its linebacker positions, but now not only returns key starters in Jones, Love, Ware and Allen, but also a lot of talented players making a push for playing time. Added depth at all of those spots gives UK more options and fresher bodies at the end of the game. After finishing 12th in the league in rushing defense (228.2 yards per game allowed), UK’s big push this offseason has been stopping the run. This more versatile, advanced group could definitely help.