Kentucky’s coaches didn’t have to say a word.
“I yelled at myself because I already knew what was wrong,” linebacker De’Niro Laster said Saturday after the Cats’ scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium.
The junior transfer from Minnesota had watched his second-team defense get pushed down the field, struggling against one specific play. So Laster got out of position to try to stop the carnage.
“I just got sick of it and I took the dive on and didn’t do my responsibility, and the quarterback was free to run outside,” Laster said. “So that’s one thing I’m working on is just doing my assignment and staying assignment perfect and playing team football.”
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It’s been an adjustment for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound player from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Much of his life, he’s spent as an inside linebacker where he’s involved on almost every play.
De’Niro brings the pop. He likes the contact. He likes the pass rush. He likes to meet them right there at the line. He’s real physical.
Denzil Ware, talking about linebacker De’Niro Laster
Now, the Cats are looking at him as a potential weapon at outside linebacker, and it’s taking Laster time to adjust.
“The toughest thing has been moving from inside to outside, learning to not be selfish and playing team football and doing my job and my assignment every day,” he said of being at UK.
It doesn’t even sound definite that the shuffling is behind Laster, who played in nine games with seven tackles at Minnesota in 2014.
“He’s versatile,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Laster. “We’ve got to find the right spot for him. He could play outside; he could play inside just as well.
“I’m anxious to see how we progress here through spring and see how he does. I have high hopes for him, and we’ve got to make sure we put him in the right spot.”
Laster is big enough and fast enough on the edge that he will make a good outside linebacker, but he’s athletic enough to play inside and go sideline to sideline, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach D.J. Eliot said.
“He has the skills to be successful at both; some people don’t,” Eliot said. “Some people, I think their talents are more specific. They’re either just an inside linebacker or just an outside linebacker. I think that Laster has the skills to be successful at both.”
No matter what position Laster ends up playing, coaches and teammates say he brings an element of toughness.
“De’Niro brings the pop,” sophomore outside linebacker Denzil Ware said. “He likes the contact. He likes the pass rush. He likes to meet them right there at the line. He’s real physical.”
Coaches are trying to harness Laster’s physicality, encouraging him to use his fundamentals, his footwork and his hands at the point of attack. It’s part of the adjustment for any player moving from one linebacker spot to another, Eliot said.
“With De’Niro specifically, he had not played outside linebacker before; his entire career at Minnesota was inside, so some of those techniques are unique to that position,” Eliot said. “We’re really working with him to become fundamentally sound at outside linebacker.”
Being fundamentally sound will be most important the first time Laster goes up against someone who is as physically talented as he is, Eliot said.
“As soon as you play somebody who is just as good as you, then the technician is going to win,” he said. “So it’s critical that every one of our players play with fundamentals and use technique.”
Laster is taking the coaching well, Eliot said, already showing major improvements from the first day until the middle of spring practices, where UK is now.
And Laster provides some experience and an edge at a position like outside linebacker, where the Cats return little experience and not a lot of pop.
“I feel like I’m one of the best pass rushers on our team and that I can help the young guys improve on their pass rushing,” he said.
Of the Cats’ 17 sacks last season, Ware is the only returning outside linebacker who recorded any, and he had one. The sophomore said he’s been happy to have Laster added to the group.
“De’Niro is probably the most physical outside linebacker that we have,” Ware said. “He brings it every time. He doesn’t take off, even the individuals (drills). That’s just what type of player he is.”