While some players are bummed when college coaches suggest a redshirt season, Eli Brown embraced the plan.
The consensus four-star linebacker battled a series of injuries his final two seasons at Warren East High School and was eager to give his body — especially a still-healing torn anterior cruciate ligament — time to get back to 100 percent when he got to Kentucky.
There was also the matter of his size.
“I came in small,” Brown said. “I was basically a receiver playing linebacker in high school. You come out here and you see a difference, you’re like, ‘I need to gain weight.’”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Brown did just that. After arriving at UK at 196 pounds, he is now at 215 and hopeful to get up to 220 or 230 by the start of the season.
The redshirt did exactly what it was intended to do for Brown.
“I feel much better; my knee feels better. I feel faster,” he said. “I feel like my speed’s coming back; my power’s coming back.”
Even on Tuesday, just UK’s third spring practice and first in full pads, Brown caught his coaches’ eyes.
“You see him showing up, seems like he has a good knack for getting to the football and showing up,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “He definitely needed the year off to get more physical and put some weight on and some muscle.”
But Brown got an extra benefit from his time on the sideline last year during what he calls his “standby redshirt” season.
There were so many injuries and so little depth at linebacker last season, when weakside linebacker Ryan Flannigan went out with a shoulder injury in the preseason, Brown was told he might not get that redshirt after all.
You see him showing up, seems like he has a good knack for getting to the football and showing up. He definitely needed the year off to get more physical and put some weight on and some muscle.
“I learned a lot from that because I got to rotate in with the starting defense, second-team defense (in practices),” said Brown, who despite several injuries amassed 100 tackles, including 12 for a loss, over his final two seasons at Warren East. “Most redshirts go scout team, but I got to rotate in. Now this year, I jump right in. I knew the base plays. I feel comfortable right now.”
That comfort means that Brown is in the mix for a starting spot along with all of the other young linebackers on UK’s defense.
The Cats are replacing a majority of the players at those central positions, including middle linebacker Josh Forrest (52 tackles) as well as weakside linebackers Khalid Henderson (44 tackles) and Flannigan (32 tackles).
Having so many starting positions up for grabs has made for good competition.
“No one has a spot right now,” Brown said. “We know we have to earn a spot and we’re going after it hard. We’re pushing each other. That’s what makes it fun. … It’s different from high school when you just go out and know you’ve got a spot. When you’re in college, every practice is a game.”
The 6-foot-2 linebacker, rated as the No. 1 outside linebacker in the state and second-best overall prospect in Kentucky by Scout.com his senior season, has been leaning heavily on veterans like Forrest and Flannigan.
The latter, who played Brown’s weakside linebacker spot last season, has been a huge boost.
“Always talking to me,” Brown said of Flannigan. “When we see each other on campus, he’s always asking me, ‘You got this? You got this?’ He’s helping me a lot.
No one has a spot right now. We know we have to earn a spot and we’re going after it hard. We’re pushing each other. That’s what makes it fun. … It’s different from high school when you just go out and know you’ve got a spot. When you’re in college, every practice is a game.
“I feel like our style of play is exactly the same. Kind of small in the box, but we have the attitude as we don’t care. We want to prove people wrong.”
That’s a common theme for players like Brown and fellow linebackers like Jordan Jones and Josh Allen, who did play last season as true freshmen in backup roles. Jones finished the season with 10 tackles and Allen four, including 1.5 for a loss.
“Us freshmen, we’re really trying to make something new, trying to put UK back on the map,” Brown said. “We’re going full speed every time, we’re pushing each other, trying to watch film and all that. I think our bond here is great.”
While fans fret about the lack of experience returning at the linebacker positions, Brown and others are more worried about making each other better.
The linebacker group — led by Nebraska transfer Courtney Love — has become a close-knit one.
“We have group messages; we’re always talking,” Brown said. “We don’t have that much experience. Our most experience is Courtney Love, so he lets us know, ‘I’m not better than you guys; we’re in this together.’ The bond that we have, we know we’re trying to create something.”
Blue-White Spring Game
When: April 16 at noon
Where: Commonwealth Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Tickets: Free (available at Ticketmaster.com by calling 1-800-745-3000)