In Kentucky's first spring scrimmage Saturday, the Wildcat defense looked like a unit trying to replace five starters, including four seniors who earned All-SEC honors.
The void goes deeper than numbers. Sure, UK will miss the productivity of Micah Johnson and Corey Peters in the middle, the big plays of Trevard Lindley in the secondary, and the sound fundamental football Sam Maxwell played at outside linebacker.
What was most notable to Coach Joker Phillips and defensive coordinator Steve Brown, though, was that when things started to go bad, nobody really stepped up as a leader to try to stop the bleeding.
Senior defensive end DeQuin Evans, who sat out the scrimmage with a sprained knee, said he noticed it on the sidelines.
"A lot of cats were looking depressed," Evans said. "I was on the sideline trying to cheer everybody on because this is something you love to do. It's not always going to be a happy situation when you mess up on a play or something, but you're out here doing something you've done since a kid, and if you're not having fun, you're probably not going to do well. People who are good at things are usually having fun doing them."
Phillips said the offense is in good shape from a leadership standpoint, with receiver Randall Cobb, quarterback Mike Hartline and offensive lineman Stuart Hines capable of carrying the torch. But Phillips said it's vital for the Wildcats' defense to develop leaders between now and the Louisville opener Sept. 4.
One guy who at least tried to breathe some life into the UK defense was defensive tackle Mark Crawford, who had 16 tackles as a reserve last season in his first year out of junior college. Crawford's voice was of the few that could be heard besides the coaches on the defensive side of the ball.
"I'm an emotional guy, and I'm going to show my emotion," Crawford said. "Then hopefully it can rub off on the next guy and the next guy. The next thing you know you've got a bunch of rowdy guys on defense ready to take somebody's head off.
"Part of being a leader is getting you hyped and mentally ready, hearing that extra voice on the field. I just try and help set the tempo because we've got a lot of young guys. If we're going to mess up, mess up going 100 miles per hour."
The defense doesn't appear to have a lot of "rah-rah" guys individually. But that doesn't mean there has to be a leadership void. The players unanimously cited Peters for his leadership qualities, and Peters hardly said a word.
"He was a player I really looked up to," Evans said. "He was an honor roll student, hardly made mistakes, did the right things on and off the field. He didn't say much, but him doing those things and working hard every day and studying the playbook the way he did, I fed off that."
Phillips singled out weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan as a guy the coaches expect to carry a big part of the torch. The junior-to-be had 82 tackles and five tackles for loss in his first year as a full-time starter. With Maxwell and Johnson in the fold, however, Trevathan didn't really have to do much leading.
"He was in the back seat with Micah and Sam around, but now he's got to step up and be the driver of the defense," Phillips said.
Trevathan said he's trying to make the adjustment to his new role.
"It's something that you've really got to develop into," Trevathan said. "I'm trying to do a better job with that. I've been focused on myself too much, and I think that's where I've been going wrong. I can't lead them if I don't know what I'm doing. But I've got to do a better job of getting guys into the huddle and getting them focused on the plays."
Midpoint of spring
UK completed its eighth spring practice Monday, which leaves six more before the Blue/White Spring Game on April 24. Phillips said he's been pleased with the energy and effort level along with the weather, but added the Cats still need to brush up on fundamentals.
"We've got to take care of the little things," Phillips said. "Our stance, the snap count, flying on the ball, the little things it takes to be a great football team."
With practices closed to the public and media until the Blue/White Spring Game, Phillips said the staff is implementing more facets of the offense and defense. Despite the slow adjustment to what Phillips called "the little things," he'll go forward with putting in the new stuff.
"We've got to at least get it introduced to our players this week," Phillips said. "So we'll just throw it at them and get it installed, then they'll be able to see it and work on it over the summer also."