UK Football

UK football notebook: Defense has found a leader in Love

Linebacker Courtney Love lifted in front of defensive back Kendall Randolph as part of Kentucky’s football team took part in a weightlifting session on Feb. 26.
Linebacker Courtney Love lifted in front of defensive back Kendall Randolph as part of Kentucky’s football team took part in a weightlifting session on Feb. 26. cbertram@herald-leader.com

You will not find Courtney Love’s name on any stat sheet from last season.

You will not find Love on any play-by-play for Kentucky.

The junior linebacker has never played a down of football for the Cats, but he’s already become the defense’s undisputed leader this offseason.

On a recent Friday morning, Love was in the UK weight room encouraging teammates.

The transfer from Nebraska who sat out last season stayed after the rest of the defense had gone and did pull-ups with an extra weight resting on top of his thighs.

Over his head on the bar was the word “dependability.”

It’s what Love is trying to embody for a Kentucky defense that lost six of its top seven tacklers to graduation and a wealth of senior leadership in guys like Josh Forrest and Melvin Lewis.

“Right now, we don’t really have anyone who’s taken that leadership role as far as guys left,” Love told the Herald-Leader recently. “I feel like I have to step in and do that. That’s what I’m here for. That’s why they brought me here for. I want to change this program.”

Love hopes his work on the scout team last season and his relentlessness conditioning showed some teammates what he is capable of doing.

And that he’s serious about his role as team leader.

He’s already had an impact on recent arrivals. The first person to help mid-year enrollee Naquez Pringle was Love.

“(He) took me under his wing and showed me around, helped me out,” the defensive lineman said.

If there are drills to be scheduled, meetings to be conducted, film to be watched, Love has become a go-to player.

When he arrived on campus, UK freshman Kash Daniel pointed to Love and Jason Hatcher — who has since been dismissed from the team — as the team’s defensive leaders.

Which leaves Love.

“If you mess up on something, Courtney Love and Hatch want it done right,” Daniel said at the time. “We’re meeting every day. We’re going over the playbook, watching film. We’re going to be out on the field doing drills. So Courtney has definitely stepped up as a leader. I’m really looking forward to playing with him.”

Love, one of the standouts on the scout team last season, is expected to come in and fill an immediate need, Coach Mark Stoops said after the season. Stoops also mentioned Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster as a player who will have a fast impact.

“Courtney and De’Niro will be difference-makers without question,” Stoops said. “Our team was looking at the linebackers down on scout team like, ‘These guys are players.’ I think those guys alone will be big difference-makers.”

Stoops specifically mentioned the leadership Love brings.

Others who could become impact players after sitting out last season include defensive backs Marcus Walker and Kei Beckham. Linebackers Eli Brown and Kobie Walker (injury and eligibility issue) both sat out last season but drew regular praise from coaches and teammates for their playmaking abilities. Hybrid defensive player Alvonte Bell had a year to get up to speed.

On the offensive side of the ball, there are potential difference-makers in wide receivers Tavin Richardson and Jabari Greenwood. And there’s Love’s fellow Nebraska transfer Greg Hart, a 6-foot-5 tight end.

Think spring

With the start of spring football on Tuesday, here are five storylines I will be watching/pondering:

1. New offense: It’s probably the most staff turnover you can get without a head-coaching change. Of Mark Stoops’ nine assistants at the end of 2015, only five remain. Players who came to Kentucky thinking “Air Raid” will have an entirely new offense to learn with the “multiple pro-style” attack favored by Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw. It’s not only new for the players but for remaining offensive assistants John Schlarman (offensive line) and Vince Marrow (tight ends), and new wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas.

2. QB queries: It wouldn’t be a Kentucky spring practice if there wasn’t a question mark at quarterback. Stoops made it clear that Drew Barker will take the first snaps of spring, but he hasn’t promised much beyond that. Looking to get in on the competition will be dual-threat QB Stephen Johnson, who was brought in from junior college specifically by Hinshaw, as well as true freshman Gunnar Hoak. It’s not even clear yet whether the new coaches will name a quarterback before summer workouts or let the race play out as usual.

3. New coaches: Stoops went for familiarity and hired seasoned coaches. Will Thomas develop a group of wide receivers that showed big-play ability but maddening inconsistency? Will a change in the voice or style make a difference? How will one of the most consistent groups — the running backs — handle their own change in coach? In all, Stoops added Gran, Hinshaw, Thomas and secondary coach Steve Clinkscale to the staff.

4. Defensive decimation: Kentucky lost 10 players who were at least semi-regular starters last season, including six of the top seven tacklers. Nearly every leader in tackles for loss and sacks — two problem areas — is gone. There are gaping holes in the front seven and a lot of responsibility falling on young players with little or no SEC experience. The only clear strength of the defense is in the secondary, but that group will be managing a coaching change, too.

5. Will fans be back? Back-to-back 5-7 seasons left fans grumbling and groaning, especially the way the season ended when the Cats gave up a 21-0 lead to rival Louisville. It left a bad taste and a bad lasting image of the team.

Will the 2016 spring game be as successful as the first two in the Stoops era that saw 50,831 fans in 2013 and 35,117 at the reduced capacity Commonwealth Stadium in 2014? (The spring game was canceled last season due to stadium renovations.)

Or will it be more like the spring game before Stoops’ arrival, which had an announced crowd of 4,500?

Youngstown connections

Sometimes it seems as though half the population of Youngstown, Ohio, is involved in some way with the UK football team, no more so than when Stoops filled his open defensive backs coaching spot with a fellow Youngstown-ian (is that what they’re called?) in Steve Clinkscale.

“Everybody talks about that, another Youngstown guy,” Stoops laughed last week. “That’s strictly by coincidence.”

So now there are three coaches from Youngstown in Stoops, Clinkscale and tight ends coach Vince Marrow, as well as four players: safety Marcus McWilson, linebackers Courtney Love and Jordan Jones, and defensive lineman Tymere Dubose.

Clinkscale thinks it’s no coincidence that some great players come out of his hometown, no matter what high school they attended.

“It’s tough football players there, winners there, people that want to do things right for the community,” the new defensive backs coach said.

Several of the players from Youngstown have said Stoops seems to have a higher standard for them.

“When he gets on me, it’s more intense, that’s for sure,” Jones joked.

Love, whose father went to high school with Stoops at Cardinal Mooney, called it an “accountability thing” with Youngstown kids and their head coach.

“We’re from his hometown,” Love said. “We have to do things right to hold up our end. I definitely think so. But to be fair, all around, he gets on all of us.”

To tell the truth

A lot of people might wonder how Kentucky landed offensive lineman Tate Leavitt over some of the other big-name schools recruiting him out of Hutchinson Community College.

Sure, he had a comfortable connection with Stoops, offensive line coach John Schlarman and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, but the most important thing to Leavitt turned out to be truthfulness.

“They were so up front with me; I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said in January. “I’d gone through the recruiting process once before and I know the garbage that gets put out there. I do. I knew what I wanted this time around.”

What Leavitt wanted was honesty.

Without naming names, he said several schools told him they had just two or three tackles on the depth chart. Then Leavitt would go online and research those claims, only to find six or seven tackles already there.

“If you’re going to lie to me, that’s not going to win me over,” he said. “I can’t play for a coach I can’t trust.”

Quarterback Stephen Johnson, a fellow junior college early enrollee, echoed that sentiment.

“A lot of coaches tell you what you want to hear, but they told me exactly what would happen: They’d give me a chance to compete,” he said of UK’s coaches. “A lot of coaches guarantee you that you’ll start, but these coaches told me I’d have a chance to compete for the starting spot on the team.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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