NFL scouts have stayed in contact with Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown over the past few years and with good reason. Former Wildcat defenders Wesley Woodyard, Myron Pryor and Jeremy Jarmon are all playing in the league.
Scouts once again figured to have an eye on the UK defense in 2009 with cornerback Trevard Lindley and linebacker Micah Johnson after both were projected in the pre-season as potential first-day draft picks.
Now there's a new name on the radar: Sam Maxwell.
Maxwell came into the season a relative unknown, having started only three games in three years playing behind Woodyard and Johnny Williams. But Maxwell has posted some eye-popping numbers in his first year as a full-timer.
Maxwell has 53 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble, but it's his production in pass coverage that has really stood out. He has four interceptions and 11 total passes deflected, tied for the SEC lead in both categories. He's 15th nationally in picks and 11th in passes deflected.
Brown said scouts have started to ask about Maxwell, and UK Coach Rich Brooks said that kind of production alone will get Maxwell a look. Maxwell has NFL linebacker size at 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, and while he's not a burner he's got enough speed. Combine that with what linebacker coach Chuck Smith calls natural play-making ability, and Maxwell will have a shot.
"Anytime you start in this league and play the way he's played and make the plays he's made, you put yourself on the NFL radar," Brooks said.
"The scouts need to be asking about him because he's got that kind of potential," Smith said. "He has a lot of natural, instinctive, God-given talent to make plays. We knew what kind of potential Sam had. It was just a matter of him developing that potential in the game.''
Maxwell doesn't talk like a guy with an eye on the next level.
"It's something I've thought about, but I'm far from putting myself out there like that," Maxwell said. "Like I said before the season, the only people who really knew who I was were the true blue Kentucky fans, so I've got a long way to go before I can start thinking I'm an NFL Draft pick or household name or anything like that."
Even as a reserve, Maxwell showed flashes of being a playmaker at key moments. His first career interception came in the second overtime period against Tennessee in 2007, and as a junior last year he forced a fumble against Florida and recorded his first career sack against Georgia.
Smith said the biggest difference with Maxwell now is consistency.
"When he's had the chance, he's always been a playmaker type of guy," Smith said. "But when he wasn't making plays, he wasn't for sure. But now he's put it all together. He's making the big plays, and he's a solid performer on all the snaps. He's not just a big-play guy and nothing else. He's become a complete player."
Maxwell said his instincts in the passing game come from a lot of time in the film room. He could have even bigger numbers, but he has let a couple of potential interceptions go through his hands.
"That's why I keep working," Maxwell said. "I don't want to miss anything. I want all my stats.
"I haven't really surprised myself. For the preparation I put into it, I expected to get the results. I'm proud of what's been happening. You can say what you want, but it's still unbelievable. I'm just hoping it can continue."
Starting quarterback a game-day decision
Brooks said after Thursday's practice that he wouldn't decide until Saturday whether junior Mike Hartline or freshman Morgan Newton would start against Vanderbilt. Brooks said both quarterbacks will play. Newton has filled in the past four games while Hartline was out with a knee injury.
Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson said earlier this week that his team would prepare for both quarterbacks.
"I don't think there is a whole lot of difference in what they run with the different personnel," he said. "I think they have a great tailback in Derrick Locke and they will try to get the ball in Randall Cobb's hands whether its at receiver or quarterback. We are going to prepare for their offensive system and react to who is going to be the starter or who plays the most. You can see that Morgan Newton is getting a lot of confidence right now, and he had a good game against Eastern Kentucky. Then there is Mike Hartline, who I thought was doing extremely well, had a good game against South Carolina before he got hurt."
Locke, Cobb, Lindley good to go Brooks said tailback Derrick Locke (knee) and receiver Randall Cobb (thumb) will both be available after missing the Eastern Kentucky game last week. Senior cornerback Trevard Lindley, who left the game with a sprained ankle, will also start.
Cobb will play with a small splint on his left (throwing) hand, but he said it shouldn't cause any major problems.
"It's fine," Cobb said of the splint. "I can still catch the ball. It doesn't bother me at all."
Vandy Cat Walk
Fans wishing to participate in the "Cat Walk," cheering the Wildcats when they enter Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday, should be at Gate One of the stadium at 9:05 a.m. CST.
The UK Alumni Association will host a pre-game tailgate before the Vanderbilt game, beginning at 9 a.m. CST. The festivities begin at Region's Centennial Bank parking lot, 3021 West End Avenue, which is next to Stoney River Restaurant and about a five-minute walk from the stadium. The cost is $12 for members, $15 for nonmembers and includes a catered breakfast meal by Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box and live music. The cost without the breakfast is $5.
To make a reservation, visit www.ukalumni.net/tailgate and click the "registration" button or call 1-800-269-ALUM or 859-257-7161.