UK Football

Scouting the Cats: Journeyman Forrest finds middle linebacker to his liking

Junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan dropped back during practice. Kentucky's linebackers have a lot of work to do to fill the shoes of graduate Avery Williamson, now a Tennessee Titan.
Junior college transfer Ryan Flannigan dropped back during practice. Kentucky's linebackers have a lot of work to do to fill the shoes of graduate Avery Williamson, now a Tennessee Titan. Herald-Leader

Maybe message board posters know more than coaches and players think they do.

While in high school, Josh Forrest was perusing a message board and found a post that made him laugh.

"It said, 'Forrest needs to be a middle linebacker,'" the Kentucky junior recalled. "And I was like, 'They're crazy. That's crazy. I'll never be there.'"

The Paducah Tilghman standout, who didn't start playing football until his junior season but excelled on both offense and defense, thought he knew better than some random post on a message board.

He thought he would be the next Randall Cobb or Chris Matthews. Forrest thought he'd get to UK and immediately "make some noise at receiver."

But from the time he arrived at Kentucky in 2011, he has been a journeyman, from wideout, to outside linebacker, then to inside linebacker.

That second switch was irritating. "I didn't know if I was ever going to find a home," Forrest said.

He was moved again to the middle under Coach Mark Stoops.

Turns out the anonymous message board poster might have been pretty smart after all.

"It's pretty unusual," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of a wide receiver turned middle linebacker. "You usually wouldn't say, 'Hey I want to coach all the greatest wideouts at my middle linebacker.' That's not usually what your goal is. But he has size and he has speed."

Forrest might be just what Kentucky's defense needs as it adapts to life after long-time leader Avery Williamson, who led the team in tackles for the past two seasons and finished seventh in the nation last season in that category with 102 tackles.

"I really like the way Josh has been playing," Stoops said of his new middle linebacker. "I really do. He really is good in pass coverage. He really has good range. He's tall and rangy and can run really well. He really has a good feel for the game."

Stoops is waiting for Forrest, who has just 29 career tackles and an interception, to be more physical, but that might come with time and experience. It's something the coaches are harping on every practice.

"For the most part, he's been right on with all of his assignments and things like that," Stoops said. "So he's grown and he's going to be a really good player."

The experience of playing wide receiver — he had 45 catches for 855 yards and 14 touchdowns as a high school senior — has helped him adapt to middle linebacker.

"Just tendencies and situations," the 6-foot-3, 236-pound junior said. "There's stuff I pick up on quick."

This spring, fellow linebacker Khalid Henderson said he's seen Forrest grow.

"He's bringing more attack to his game," the junior said. "He's bringing more versatility. Showing his athleticism more and being more of a rangy player, since he is a tall linebacker. He's stepping up in big areas."

But is there the expectation that Forrest will be the next Williamson, who is now a Tennessee Titan?

"We're picking up the missing pieces for Avery," said Forrest, who picked off seven passes during his senior season at Paducah Tilghman, including three in the state championship game.

"It's going to take two of us to do what he did, but I don't think anybody should worry about anything."

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