For the first time in a long time, Kentucky went into fall camp feeling good about its depth at linebacker.
"I feel better," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said a week before the Cats reported. "Last year, I was concerned about just getting my starters in position to make plays and really emphasized on development of Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson.
"And those guys had very good springs and are much further along at the position than they were last year, and I feel confident in their ability. And the emphasis has been the next level of players."
That emphasis on the next level of players has been sped up significantly after a wild rash of suspensions, illnesses and injuries.
■ Likely starting outside linebacker junior Jason Hatcher will miss UK's first two games for a violation of university policies.
■ Hatcher's listed backup on the depth chart, redshirt freshman Kobie Walker, is expected to miss the first couple of games while recovering from ankle surgery in the offseason.
■ Starting weakside linebacker Ryan Flannigan has been out for a few days nursing a shoulder injury that has him in a sling. Flannigan's backup, Jordan Jones, is "going to be out a couple weeks with an illness, with a sickness that sets us back a little bit," head coach Mark Stoops announced Monday.
■ There's still no word on the eligibility status of Nebraska transfer Courtney Love, who has been getting reps at the middle linebacker spot with Dorian Hendrix and Nico Firios.
The middle linebacker spot, where defensive leader Josh Forrest plays, is fine for now. But the senior said there's a sense of urgency to get all of that position group up to speed.
"We're going to have to bring the young guys along," he said.
Coaches have been harping on the basics: where to line up, being clear on their assignments and run responsibilities as well as knowing their technique on every call.
One name expected to fill a gap is senior Khalid Henderson (36 games with 15 starts and 130 career tackles) at the weakside linebacker spot that Flannigan had.
"Khalid's been taking those reps, and we've got a handful of other guys that we're going to work around there and see how it fits out," said Eliot, who coaches the inside linebackers.
As for the outside linebackers, position coach Andy Buh said the starters for the moment are senior Jabari Johnson and redshirt freshman Denzil Ware, who have both had good fall camps.
Behind them for now are true freshmen Kengera Daniel (who was at UK for spring practice) and Josh Allen.
"Those are the four we're really focusing on, and we're bringing Alvonte Bell along," Buh said of the junior-college transfer who arrived on campus just a couple of days before fall camp. Bell is still getting into proper condition.
Johnson, who played in all 12 games last season with two starts, has been critical as UK tries to get younger players up to speed.
"Jabari offers his services to all of those guys and not just the guys playing, it's to every young guy who wants to get better," Buh said of Johnson, who had 20 tackles last season. "That's what I love about him. He understands we're only as good as our weakest player."