Sidelines with John Clay

As expected, Kentucky football’s linebackers need work

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. Lexington Herald-Leader

Thankfully, there were no announcements of departures or season-ending injuries on Monday after Kentucky football finished the first of its two practices for that day. That didn’t mean, however, there wasn’t something to worry about.

In reviewing Saturday’s scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, head coach Mark Stoops said Monday he was not pleased with the play of his linebacking corp.

“We weren’t very good Saturday,” Stoops said. “We’ve got to get some things ironed out. Just assignment-wise and getting to the football.”

Linebacking is a bold-faced question mark for Stoops’ defensive unit this fall. Gone is middle linebacker Josh Forrest, the team’s only NFL draft choice last season. (Forrest is with the Rams.) Gone, too, are Khalid Henderson and Ryan Flannigan, who basically shared the linebacker spot opposite Forrest.

There is no doubt the UK coaches feel like they have excellent physical ability at the position, but the big worry is experience. There’s just not much experience.

Middle linebacker Courtney Love is a transfer from Nebraska who sat out last season. Stoops thinks so highly of the Youngstown native’s leadership skills he took Love to the SEC Football Media Days despite the fact the 6-foot-2, 242-pound junior has yet to play in a game for Kentucky. Still, it stands to reason that Love has some rust to shake off, especially early in camp.

At weak-side linebacker, Jordan Jones came out of spring drills running first-team. The sophomore has had his discipline questioned, however, already in camp. Stoops said early on that he was not going to play those who were undisciplined. In fact, Eli Brown, listed second on the depth chart, has been running some with the first team. The former Warren East star redshirted last season so that he could play at the SEC level.

Nico Firios, a sophomore who has yet to letter, missed time early in camp but is back out on the field practicing. He entered the fall sharing the No. 2 depth chart with true freshman Kash Daniel behind Love. New inside linebackers coach Matt House talked last week about how much Daniel, the former Paintsville star, loved the game.

It didn’t help that Jordan Bonner, a touted junior college prospect, arrived on campus just before the start of fall camp. The coaches had hoped to get the Ohio native in the fold in the summer. Academic responsibilities kept that from happening.

Overall, linebacker is certainly an important spot. Forrest was the leader of the defense a season ago. Stoops’ first year, Avery Williamson took the bull by the horns and made himself into an NFL draft pick -- fifth round 2014 selection by the Titans. For Kentucky’s 2016 defense to be effective, Stoops knows he has to get his linebackers to raise their level of play.

“That’s why you have to scrimmage with live bullets,” Stoops said. “With all the play-action as you get into the game mode, those guys need the work more than anyone. We’ll get it ironed out.”

Kentucky linebacker depth chart

Middle Linebacker

  • Courtney Love, 6-2, 242, Jr-TR
  • Nico Faris, 6-2, 242, So
  • Kash Daniel, 6-3, 241, Fr
  • Alex Brownell, 6-2, 235, Fr.

Weakside Linebcker

  • Jordan Jones, 6-2, 220, So.
  • Eli Brown, 6-2, 215, Fr-RS
  • Roland Walder, 6-3, 215, Fr.
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