Back for his fifth and final season as a Kentucky Wildcat, senior outside linebacker JJ Weaver hasn’t been the havoc-wreaking force many expected through three non-conference games. The 6-5, 244-pound pass-rusher has picked up 12 total tackles (eight solo) to go with two tackles for loss, one sack and one pass deflection. Six of those tackles and the sack came in the opener vs. Ball State.
The team numbers are strong, Brad White’s unit tied for No. 16 in the nation in sacks per game (3.3) and No. 35 in tackles for loss per game (6.7). Kentucky sits comfortably at No. 12 in points allowed per contest (11.3) and No. 26 in yards allowed per game (281.7). The Wildcats have done just fine without Weaver going nuclear a quarter of the way through the season.
Letting the game come to Weaver
What does it mean for the fifth-year senior individually? Well, nothing. In fact, White is pleased with Weaver’s early production and ability to impact the game in other ways beyond counting stats. He’s more focused on the veteran linebacker’s approach to the game and letting things come to him.
That’s when the big-play moments will come.
“Are there things where he’d like to be more impactful or maybe doing better? Yeah, I’m sure there are. There are some special plays, obviously, you’d like him to make,” White said. “I think it’s one of those things where if you just keep playing the right way, those plays are going to come your way. What you can’t do is force it. Against EKU, I felt like he was pressing a lot. We talked to him a lot last game about, ‘Don’t press, let the game come to you.’ I thought he was better in that regard last week.”
Weaver felt that a bit early. There’s pressure that comes with being a big name and captain on a good defense with high expectations. He wants to make plays just like everyone, but he tried to force it early rather than letting them come organically.
“It’s hard because I expect a lot out of me. The guys, everybody expects a lot from me,” Weaver said. “The first two games, I was trying to do too much. Last week I just tried to listen to what Coach White said, trust the process.”
Balancing football IQ with instincts
He’s also dropping back in coverage more and showing off his versatility, which obviously impacts pass-rush stats. That’s been an adjustment, but he’s getting more comfortable with the balance each week.
“I’m just trying to play Coach White’s game, fit into the system. We run a 3-4, so I’m dropping a lot and trying to keep my feet underneath me,” Weaver added. “I just want to play loose, play fast, but within the system.”
That’s music to Brad White’s ears, exactly the way he wants Weaver playing. Make the right reads and put yourself in position to succeed before the snap, but then play instinctual football after. Be a playmaker.
“A lot of times if you’ve been in the system a lot, you know all of the strengths and weaknesses of the defense, know what they’re trying to do,” White said. “Sometimes you just don’t need to overthink. We talk all the time about football IQ, and that’s pre-snap. But then post-snap, you’ve just got to let it go and trust you know what you saw pre-snap and just play. There’s some of that too.”
A ‘game-changing’ talent
Weaver has been solid, but his defensive coordinator knows he’s capable of more than solid. He’s a special talent with the ability to take games over individually.
That’s White’s expectation going into SEC play.
“He’ll continue to make big plays, and we need him to make game-changing plays for us. Those will come if he stays true to who he is, stays true to the training and technique and plays with a little bit or reckless abandonment,” White said. “He’s going to be just fine and he’s still helping us win. He is going to make some plays like he has for us in the past that change the outcomes of games.”
It starts on Saturday when the Wildcats take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville.