Kentucky's defense will be nearing full strength again Saturday with the likely return of senior linebacker Ryan Flannigan.
Flannigan, who missed the first three games and much of fall camp with a shoulder injury, was cleared to play late last week but didn't play in the Florida game because he hadn't gotten enough practice repetitions.
"It's very big to get him back this week," Coach Mark Stoops said Monday during his news conference to preview the Missouri game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. "So he'll be full steam ahead. He'll be in there getting ready to go this week."
Before the injury at practice, caused by a collision with fullback Jacob Hyde, Flannigan had impressed coaches and teammates.
"Ryan was really playing some great football," Stoops said. "You heard us talking about him throughout the spring and throughout the summer. He was really playing fast and explosive. Anytime you get a player like that back you're happy."
Flannigan had 57 tackles last season, but more than 40 percent of those came in the final two games. He had a career-high 12 against Tennessee and 11 more at Louisville, along with a pass breakup.
He returned this season as the Cats' second-leading tackler. He will share duties with Khalid Henderson, who has had several big plays this season, including a career-high 12 tackles at South Carolina and a pivotal forced fumble on a two-point conversion try.
Henderson will still get his share of reps, Stoops said, and likely will cross-train at both linebacker spots.
"He's done some really good things for us and we really appreciate the great effort that he's given us," Stoops said of the senior. "He's really played well at times. But it'll be good to get Ryan back as well and get that depth because we've been pretty thin there."
Flannigan returns a week after the Cats got defensive end/linebacker Jason Hatcher back from his university-mandated two-game suspension.
The junior linebacker had two tackles in his return and jumped to a starting spot on the depth chart, playing at strongside linebacker in front of Josh Allen. Senior Jabari Johnson was moved over and was listed in front of redshirt freshman Denzil Ware.
As for Hatcher, Stoops said "he's earned the right," to return to his starting spot.
"We wanted to make sure he earned his spot and worked his way back in there, and did some good things," Stoops continued. "And certain packages, we'll go with other guys."
All of those linebacker hybrid players will play plenty, the coach said. Ware has 10 tackles this season to go with a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. He also ran back the fumbled two-point conversion that helped UK top South Carolina two weeks ago.
Meant could be back, too
On Sunday, Stoops didn't think defensive tackle Regie Meant would be able to play against Missouri after suffering a shoulder injury in the game against Florida.
But by Monday morning, it was looking more likely that one of the Cats' top defensive linemen could be back on the field soon. UK plans to prepare for C.J. Johnson to be the starter at that spot, but noted that there's now a good chance Meant could play some.
The prospect of getting Meant, who has 11 tackles, including one for a loss and a sack three games into the season, made Stoops happy.
"Regie really was doing some good things before he got hurt," he said of the 6-foot-4, 302-pound sophomore who has started in 14 games. "Really, really was doing some good things, then again, he hurt that shoulder. Disappointed because I think he's the type of guy every time he takes the field, plays more and more, he's getting better and better."
Johnson's listed backup on the depth chart (should Meant be limited or unable to play) is redshirt lineman Adrian Middleton.
News and notes
Kentucky's home game against Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 3 will start at 7:30 p.m., the Southeastern Conference announced Monday, meaning UK's first six games this season will be night-time kickoffs.
The Kentucky-EKU game will be televised on one of the SEC Network's alternate channels.
UK's sixth game, at home vs. Auburn, comes 12 days after the EKU contest, a Thursday night game.
■ In other depth chart changes, true freshman Jordan Jones was listed as the backup middle linebacker, replacing Nico Firios, who has been battling injuries.
■ The right tackle spot is now listed as three-game starter George Asafo-Adjei or Kyle Meadows, who also is the listed backup at left tackle.
"Kyle did some good things and he'll help us," Stoops said Monday. "Kyle will help us as we move forward."
■ Cole Mosier is now listed as the backup at right guard and third string at right tackle.