Technically Ridge Wilson will be a sophomore during the 2010 season.
But in Wilson's eyes, the University of Kentucky's spring football practice is the start of his freshman year all over again.
It's easy to understand why Wilson was eager to put his actual freshman year behind him, as he struggled both on and off the field.
Wilson, a Louisville Central product, was considered to be a player who could make an impact early when he arrived in Lexington last summer, and Wilson himself expressed confidence that he could at least make the linebacker rotation behind starters Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell and Danny Trevathan.
But Wilson's early progress was derailed when he was charged with fourth-degree assault for punching a woman in the face last September. Wilson saw his Wildcat career flash before his eyes, but then-UK Coach Rich Brooks, citing Wilson's previous track record as a solid citizen, reinstated him to the team.
"The whole university was behind me 100 percent," Wilson said. "When it first happened, I really didn't think it was that big of a deal, but then afterwards I thought to myself, 'I actually could have been kicked off the team and lost everything over nothing, when it was a situation where I could have just walked away."
Wilson didn't get a chance to create many headlines on the field. He played in 11 games, but mostly on special teams. The toughest part for Wilson, an honor roll student at Central who was recruited by Ivy League schools, were the perceptions that came along with the incident.
"The people who know me know what type of guy I am," Wilson said. "After it happened, I wanted to apologize to the family (of the young lady in the incident) but I couldn't because of the case. It was a situation where I should have just walked away. There's no reason for me to ever put my hands on a girl under any circumstances. I've just tried to move on. I just kind of focused on a new beginning. I know I can't change the past. I'm just working on a new future and trying to get better every day."
Ty Scroggins, Wilson's high school coach, said Wilson had the same struggles making the adjustment to college life and big-time SEC football that many others do, going from big star in high school to having to compete with several players as good as he.
"Sometimes you get overwhelmed at first, and I think that's exactly what happened with Ridge. He got to Lexington and in his first few months got caught up in something juvenile and childish."
"But Ridge Wilson is the type of kid I'd trust with my own kids. If they know Ridge is in town, the first thing they say to me when they come home is, 'Where's Ridge?' He just got caught up in the moment and let his emotions get the better of him. I think he's learned from it, and it happened early enough in his career that I think he'll be able to put it all behind him."
The next step for Wilson is to rebound on the field. Scroggins said in hindsight Wilson should have redshirted last fall.
"I know how bad he wanted to play, and he can be hard-headed," Scroggins said. "But I think looking back he knows he probably should have redshirted. We preached to him about getting bigger and stronger, and we told him don't go down there just to be on special teams."
Wilson is currently No. 2 behind Jacob Dufrene in the battle to replace Maxwell at strongside linebacker and makes no secret of his long-term goal.
"To start," Wilson said. "I want to get out there and make some plays. I don't want to just be out there. I want to be a factor."
For that to happen, Wilson's got a lot of catching up to do. Linebackers coach Chuck Smith said that Dufrene's experience and familiarity with the system gives him the upper hand at the moment.
"Sometimes I forget that Ridge is just a freshman," Smith said. "Expectations are always so high for Ridge because he's got so much ability. I expect him to pick it up faster than he's been picking it up. He's been a little slow at picking up assignments, responsibilities, alignments, things like that. I want more out of him. I want more energy out of him. One of the reasons the energy's not there is he's thinking a lot and unsure. ... He's hanging in there, but he's a little behind. Jacob's been here a long time, and he's a lot more ready."
Even if Wilson wins the strongside linebacker job, his snaps would be limited by the fact UK uses its nickel package with two linebackers as much or more than its regular three-linebacker package. So Wilson has been spending some time this spring with his hand down as a pass-rushing defensive end on third-down and nickel situations.
"We think he can be a guy like (ex-UK linebacker) Johnny Williams," defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "Johnny would line up at linebacker for us and then move up and put his hand down in the nickel. We think that's a role Ridge could grow into."
Wilson said he has no problem playing defensive end.
"I think that's more of a natural fit for me to tell you the truth," Wilson said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get on the field."
Wilson said he's been focusing on two aspects of his game this spring: his work ethic and understanding the system.
"I think the coaches think I'm a little lazy," Wilson said. "I've just got to make sure I run to the ball at all times. If I can just keep it up with the work ethic and technique, I think everything else is straight. The talent is there, the ability to make plays is there. I've just got to learn my assignments."