Ridge Wilson has never been the most patient person.
He came to the University of Kentucky in 2009 expecting to start as a true freshman. Things didn't quite work out that way. While he did play in 11 games, it was mostly on special teams, and he was credited with just one tackle.
Wilson came into last fall with the No. 1 spot at strongside linebacker in mind, but he ended up losing out to senior Jacob Dufrene. Wilson admitted at the time that frustration started to sink in.
But Wilson finally made his breakthrough in the regular-season finale at Tennessee. He earned his first career start and followed that up with six tackles in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Now Wilson says there's no looking back. He's firmly entrenched as a starter in co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter's new multiple scheme, and he's planning on putting himself on the map in 2011.
"It's either now or never," Wilson said. "These first two years have flown by, so this has got to be a breakout year for me."
Wilson could shine in the new scheme. He'll continue to line up some at outside linebacker, but he'll also move up and put his hand on the ground at defensive end in some sets.
Both Minter and defensive line coach David Turner think the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Wilson could give the defense a much-needed boost as a pass rusher. Kentucky had just 21 sacks last season, and its three primary ends (Collins Ukwu, Taylor Wyndham and DeQuin Evans) combined for just five.
"We need an improved pass rush, and he can bring some speed off the edge," Turner said. "We'll have some packages where Ridge will be able to rush the passer coming off the edge, and that should help us sack the quarterback a little more than we did last year."
Wilson and Winston Guy will be the "X-factors" in the new defense. Minter believes moving both players closer to the line of scrimmage will give the defense more big-play capabilities.
"He's got a chance to be an impact guy over there on that back edge," Minter said. "With him and Winston on the edge, we can be pretty athletic and pretty forceful."
Linebackers coach Chuck Smith adopted Wilson as his personal project when Wilson arrived at UK. Though Smith admits Wilson has driven him crazy at times, he's pleased with Wilson's progress.
"He's grown up a lot from his freshman year," Smith said. "Does he still have a lot more growing up to do? Yes. He's a little hard-headed sometimes, but he's maturing, and I think we're going to have ourselves a good football player when all is said and done."
Wilson admits he and Smith have clashed at times, but he appreciates how hard Smith has pushed him.
"Coach Smith and I, we have a great relationship, even off the field. We'll text each other all the time just to see how the other is doing," Wilson said. "My first two years it was kind of frustrating. I wasn't playing a lot. Coach had to do his job and worry about the players who were out there. I almost felt like he kind of disowned me. But in reality, he had a lot at stake and a lot on the table, and he had to take care of business. But every now and then, he'd let me know that he hadn't forgotten about me. Coach Smith has high expectations for me. But he just wants me to do what he feels like he needs me to do to get out on the field."
Wilson was never shy about asking why he wasn't playing more. According to the coaches, it came down to two things: effort and assignments.
"The coaches would always tell me, 'Ridge, you've got all the talent in the world, but you don't consistently run to the ball,' " Wilson said. "They always tell me it's not my talent. It's not my size or anything like that. Just run to the ball hard. They tell me if I run to the ball hard, I'll be making millions one day."
Playing the hybrid linebacker/defensive end brings even more assignment responsibilities to Wilson, and he's still learning this spring.
"We've got to be patient with him," Smith said. "But he's got to take it upon himself to learn the assignments. He's learning more every day and getting a better feel for it, and once he gets it down and doesn't have to think about it, he's really going to be able to use his athleticism and he'll be a very effective player."
Turner added, "He just needs to cut it loose. A lot of times, it's probably from not knowing exactly what to do. He's got the speed. Once he gets it down and cuts it loose, I think you'll see what he's really capable of."
Smith thinks this is the year we'll finally see what exactly Wilson can do.
"It's his turn to step up and be an impact player," Smith said. "He's got the skill, he's got the ability. I really think he's in position to have a really solid year."