It's put up or shut up time for Ridge Wilson.
Wilson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore, has been campaigning all year for the opportunity to start at strong-side linebacker, and he hasn't been bashful about letting the coaches know how he feels.
After spending the first eight games behind senior Jacob Dufrene, Wilson will finally get his chance Saturday when Kentucky travels to Mississippi State.
The difference for Wilson came when he decided to quit pleading his case and start making plays. In eight games as a reserve, Wilson has eight tackles, an interception, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery.
"At the beginning of the year, I felt I should be the starter," Wilson said. "Any athlete should feel that way. You want to be the main man on the field. I was complaining to the coaches a lot that I should have been the starter and they weren't really listening to me. So I decided to shut my mouth and go out there and work 10 times harder, and I came out on top."
UK Coach Joker Phillips prefers Wilson's quieter approach.
"It definitely helps when you keep your mouth shut and do your job," Phillips said. "And I told him I don't want to hear him complaining. He's got to make plays to keep the job. You've got to do something to warrant being the starter, and talking isn't the way to do it."
Wilson provides a little more length and athleticism than Dufrene, but linebackers coach Chuck Smith said Wilson had to win the job on the field. Now he has the full trust and respect of the coaches.
"The world is you owe me everything; you don't have to earn anything," Smith said. "Ridge has figured out he's not going to be given anything, you have to earn it, and he's earned this opportunity. I'm looking for him to step up and live up to his potential. He's earned the right, now he's got to do something with it. And he's the only one who can control that at this point."
Wilson played sparingly as a true freshman last season, and the coaches challenged him in the off-season to get more comfortable with the scheme. Wilson picked things up, but then it was a matter of playing with the speed and motor that the staff requires.
"He's got to get off blocks and go make plays, not shuffle his feet and jog and go make plays," Phillips said. "We're trying to play fast, and Ridge has not always played fast for us."
Wilson said playing starters' minutes and not looking over his shoulder will help him speed up on the field.
"I get what (Phillips) is saying, I understand where he's coming from," Wilson said. "But at the same time I told him it comes with confidence, it comes with repetition, it comes with experience. When you got confidence, you're not scared to make a mistake. When you're playing scared and wondering whether the coaches are going to take you out or leave you in, you're really not playing your game, you're not really yourself. I just told him, 'Let me play. Let me play and I'll make plays.' It's simple as that."
As a whole, the UK linebackers have been ordinary outside of junior Danny Trevathan, who's playing at an All-Southeastern Conference level. Wilson is hoping his arrival in the lineup will change that.
"To be honest, nothing against (Ronnie) Sneed and Qua (Huzzie), but I feel like I can be the one who matches Danny's intensity and goes out there and gives the same effort he's giving," Wilson said.
The coaches are waiting to see if Wilson puts his money where his mouth is.
"He's really picked up his game, so we decided to give him a shot," Smith said. "We want to see what you can do ... so show us what you can do."
Locke out vs. MSU
UK will be without tailback Derrick Locke for the third consecutive game.
Phillips said Thursday that Locke would not make the trip for the Mississippi State game because of a lingering shoulder injury.
True freshman Raymond Sanders will start in Locke's place, with sophomore Donald Russell backing him up.