A concept most people discovered in preschool has been helpful for an inexperienced group of linebackers at Kentucky.
New inside linebackers coach Matt House has instituted a “buddy system” for his players, pairing them up to work together and keep each other in line.
“Got to hold each other accountable,” middle linebacker Courtney Love said at Southeastern Conference Media Days last week. “Ultimately, I’m the oldest guy in the room, so I’ve got to be able to know exactly what all these guys are doing. I’ve got to hold these guys accountable, and I want them to hold me accountable.”
Love, a middle linebacker who transferred from Nebraska, has developed into a leader for a young defense. The junior is paired with Roland Walder, a 6-foot-3 true freshman from Dayton.
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“He’s been doing everything great,” Love said of Walder. “For a new freshman to come in and start classes, that’s not easy. Then learning the playbook and things like that, coming straight out of high school, he’s doing fine.”
Other pairings include Nico Firios with Jordan Jones, Kash Daniel with Eli Brown and Alex Brownell with Drew Schlengel.
After he was hired, House said the inexperience at inside linebacker — not a single returning starter — wasn’t a huge concern.
“There’s going to be some baptism by fire, no question, but it’s a group that’s athletic, hungry and smart,” he said. “As a coach, that’s what you want. You want guys who are hungry to learn, and that’s this group.”
House also saw a group that “got significantly better from practice one to practice 15,” when he watched spring practice video.
What Love sees in the linebackers — the inside ones coached by House and the outside ones coached by defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot — is versatility.
He thinks that will help the Cats as they learn to work together on the field this season.
Love points to a fellow transfer in De’Niro Laster (Minnesota), who could play either linebacker position because of his speed and physical style of play.
“I feel like wherever he plays, he’s going to be good,” Love said of Laster. “De’Niro is a versatile player. We have a lot of guys like that, honestly, that can play at any position. So wherever he plays, he’s going to get good and he’s going to work hard. He’s going to bust his tail.”
Laster’s natural position appears to be inside linebacker, Coach Mark Stoops said last week, but it’s still not decided where he can help the team the most. He’s currently penciled in at the defensive end/linebacker hybrid spot behind Denzil Ware.
“We’ll continue to explore what we do about that this summer, when we get in camp and get in two-a-days, to see exactly where to settle in on him,” Stoops said of Laster. “I want him to have the best chance to be successful for himself and to help this team.”
The head coach has been happy with the linebackers’ work in the weight room this summer, noting Josh Allen added 20 pounds.
In the post-spring game depth chart, Allen is penciled in as a starter at strongside linebacker, ahead of Kobie Walker and a true freshman. The average weights of Allen and Walker (223 pounds) is still eight pounds lighter than the average of the two players at those spots last season.
Almost across the board, the linebackers are slightly lighter than a season ago, with the exception of middle linebacker.
The players will need to continue to grow into the positions as well as their bodies, Stoops said.
“It’s important for the rest of our backers, in particular Jordan (Jones) and Eli (Brown), to gain some weight, because both of those guys are electric,” Stoops said. “They can really, really run. They have very good instincts. But they do need to put on some weight. That’s critical.”
Jones has added five pounds since last season, but the average of his weight and Eli Brown’s at weakside linebacker is still 12 pounds lighter than the seniors they’re replacing. Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson averaged 230 pounds last season.