Technically, Danny Trevathan was a starter at weak-side linebacker for Kentucky last year. But since the Cats spent so much time in the nickel defense, UK Coach Joker Phillips estimated Trevathan was in for only 30 percent of the plays.
On top of that, Trevathan played nearly the entire season in a cast to protect a broken wrist.
Trevathan still managed to finish second on the team in tackles with 82, and he also had five stops behind the line of scrimmage.
So if Trevathan can produce like that as a part-time player with one hand, imagine what his numbers could look like now that he's healthy and will be on the field full-time.
Last year, Trevathan was the odd man out when the Cats went to the nickel — emphasizing pass coverage with five defensive backs and only two linebackers — giving way to Sam Maxwell and Micah Johnson. Trevathan, a third-year junior, is now the most experienced linebacker on the squad and will be asked to do much more.
He'll drop back in coverage and try to stay with receivers. He'll be a blitzer. And he'll also help organize the rest of the defense.
"He's been the guy who's been the quarterback and leader of the defense," Phillips said. "Now he gets a chance to be on the field full-time. This year he'll be able to play a lot of snaps, and we count on him. He's what you're looking for at linebacker. He can run, he's physical, and he understands what's going on."
Trevathan, who has been timed as fast as 4.45 seconds in the 40-yard dash, welcomes the added responsibility.
"I felt like I could have done a lot more last year," he said. "I'll get to play a lot more nickel this year. I'm trying to go out here and make plays. You should see a lot more big plays out of me. One of my strengths is that I can run, so I'm going to go out there and work hard on coverage. I want to make myself more useful."
Phillips challenged Trevathan to be more of a leader in the spring, and linebackers coach Chuck Smith said he's answered the bell.
"He's done a really good job in that area," Smith said. "He's more of a leader by example. He likes to practice, he enjoys it, and he practices fast. He really enjoys the game of football. He reminds me of (ex-UK linebacker) Wesley Woodyard. Everybody kind of feeds off that."
Trevathan is the only linebacker who has nailed down a starting job, as battles are ongoing in the middle and on the strong side.
Junior Ronnie Sneed and redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie had been running neck-and-neck for most of the spring and the early part of fall camp, but a foot blister that has sidelined Huzzie all week has nudged Sneed out in front.
"It's putting him behind," Phillips said of Huzzie's injury. "Ronnie's done some good things and made us think he's the starter right now."
Huzzie looked like he would get some time as a true freshman last year but suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp that caused him to miss the season. He admitted that winning the starting job is important to him, especially in order to live up to the legacy of Woodyard and Braxton Kelley, both standout linebackers at UK who hailed from Huzzie's hometown of LaGrange, Ga.
"I really want to be the starter," he said. "I had a big setback last year. And the guys that came ahead of me, Wesley and Braxton, I look up to those guys. And if I don't win the job I'll look at it as another setback for me. Once I get back on the field, I think I can still come up with that extra push to get the job."
Depth in the middle will be provided by true freshman Avery Williamson, who's been turning heads in practice.
On the strong side, junior Jacob Dufrene and sophomore Ridge Wilson are also in a heated battle. Smith said Dufrene understands the system and is solid in his assignments while Wilson brings a little more athleticism.
"It's a toss-up right now," Smith said.