For all the emphasis on brute force in football, success can be equally dependent on athletic fluidity.
The bid by Kash Daniel to claim the Kentucky Wildcats’ starting middle linebacker job vacated by the graduating Courtney Love largely depends on whether the former Paintsville High School star can become a more flexible athlete.
All spring, UK defensive coaches have emphasized that the 6-foot-1, 242-pound Daniel must become more fluid in his movements so he can make plays in space when deployed against teams with “SEC speed.”
“I think I have gotten better in that aspect, but I know that I can improve and I think I can take that further,” Daniel said Friday night after Kentucky’s Blue-White Spring Game. “That’s going to be one of my key things this off-season, to get more flexible.”
As you will see, Daniel has a “hip” summer plan to make greater fluidity a reality.
Early in spring practice, UK defensive coordinator Matt House praised Daniel’s efforts to increase his agility.
“He has done a good job of trying to ‘loosen up’ a little bit,” House said. “He definitely looks more comfortable.”
In Friday’s spring game, Daniel had a team-high eight tackles. Yet his most impressive play in terms of “athletic fluidity” came on a pass defended early in the third quarter.
On a first-and-goal from the 10, Daniel locked up explosive Kentucky flanker Lynn Bowden on a short crossing route and forced an incomplete pass.
“He will tell you I held him,” Daniel said afterward of Bowden.
“No,” Daniel said. “C’mon, man, c’mon.”
In his first two seasons at Kentucky, Daniel’s primary contribution came on special teams. The state of Kentucky’s 2015 high school Mr. Football had 19 tackles as a UK true freshman in 2016, then had seven last season.
As a linebacker, no one questions Daniel’s ability to bring the lumber near the line of scrimmage.
Yet unlike olden days when that was a middle linebacker’s primary task, now a world of spread offenses and five-receiver sets means even a MLB has to be able to drop into the secondary and make plays against elusive slot receivers.
“Back in the old days with Dick Butkus, all they had to do was stop the run,” Daniel said, referencing the 1960s Chicago Bears linebacking icon. “As a linebacker now, you are more like a hybrid: You got to be able to stop the run, but you got to be able to defend the pass.”
To ensure he can do both in 2018, Daniel says he will be spending the summer months leading up to Kentucky’s Sept. 1 season opener against Central Michigan executing a plan to further “loosen” his hips.
“My thing is in the middle of my hips,” Daniel says. “(My goal) is to get my hips looser, to be able to flip and come to balance quicker.”
How does one go about acquiring greater flexibility in one’s hips? Daniel says it starts with diet.
“First off, it starts by drinking a lot of water,” he said. “Taking (soda) pop, beer, whatever you drink, and throwing that out the window. Literally, just drink straight water. Then, eat right, eat greens and stuff.”
The second phase of Daniel’s increased-flexibility regimen involves stretching. Lots and lots of stretching.
“Just get on the floor with bands and your hamstrings and your hips,” Daniel says. “Really, your hamstrings and your quads and your calves, all lower-body stretching will help you be a ‘fluid in space’ player.”
After the Blue-White Game, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops praised Daniel’s overall “solid” spring practice performance but said the MLB has more room for improvement in terms of making plays in space.
“It looked like he lost leverage or maybe missed one or two (tackles) from what I saw with the naked eye out there today,” Stoops said. “It happens. If you've got good play makers on offense, it’s going to happen to a lot of guys in space.”
To become a guy capable of containing “good play makers” while they are operating in space, Daniel has adopted a mantra.
“Stretch, stretch, stretch, drink water,” he says. “That’s my advice. That’s what works for me.”