Kentucky has big questions to answer at inside linebacker

Adam Luckettby:Adam Luckett05/14/21

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To say Kentucky has had a very good run at inside linebacker would be an understatement. The Wildcats have produced three draft picks at the position during the Mark Stoops era — Avery Williamson, Josh Forrest, Jamin Davis — to go along with a handful of All-SEC honors. The defense has consistently gotten very solid play from the position no matter the season.

To repeat that in 2021, the defense is going to be relying on some very unproven pieces.

Thanks to an early draft entree combined with some unfortunate injury luck, the Wildcats are being stretched thin at inside linebacker. No one is sure how Stoops and defensive coordinator Brad White plans to handle the combined loss of Jamin Davis, Chris Oats, and D’Eryk Jackson at Mike. However, the unit has a budding star at Will to go along with what could be a star true freshman.

Our post-spring personnel previews continue after touching on the interior defensive line and the edge. Jon Sumrall has his work cut out for him in year three in Lexington as the Wildcats need to develop depth quickly on top of finding a starter at Mike.

Projected starters

DeAndre Square: The top-600 recruit enters year four in Lexington and Square has played a lot of meaningful football for the Wildcats. The Will linebacker has started 23 games on his way to recording 166 tackles in three seasons. The 224-pound linebacker has flashed some playmaking in his career with 10.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. The senior is an unquestioned leader of the defense.

“DeAndre’s been a guy that has been a big-time leader for us really since he stepped on — he was a quiet leader as a freshman you’re not saying much — but what he did, he showed up every day and worked,” said White. “To be undersized when he showed up as a freshman, and to play the reps and snaps that he did as a freshman, he led and gained trust of his teammates by his play style and his work ethic.”

Jared Casey: A recruiting flip from Oregon in the class of 2019, Casey is now a redshirt sophomore who has 23 carer tackles in 14 games played. The four-star recruit out of Louisville (Ky.) Ballard was set to backup up Square at Will but may need to slide over to Mike due to the loss of Jackson. Sumrall likes what he’s seen from the year three player.

“Learning the positions, it’s a lot,” said Sumrall. “What we do to play inside linebacker, we put a lot on those guys mentally. They have to think at a high level. It’s more than just a physical game, it’s a mental game for those guys as well. Jared’s made a lot of great strides. You’re never going to be perfect, you’re going to make mistakes but I’m really excited to see his growth.”

Top reserves

Luke Fulton: A top-500 recruit in the class of 2019, the Youngstown (Ohio) Cardinal Mooney product would move onto Michigan State to continue his playing career. After two seasons in East Lansing, Fulton entered the portal. The transfer enrolled for the spring semester and went through practice at Kentucky. With the loss of Jackson, Fulton might be the only true Mike linebacker on the roster. Fulton only played in one game while at Michigan State.

Luke Fulton - LB - Kentucky

Luke Fulton is now a very important piece of the Kentucky defense. (Luke Fulton/Twitter)

Wild cards

Trevin Wallace: Perhaps the crown jewel of the 2021 class, Wallace was a top-150 composite recruit from South Georgia and perhaps the most significant recruiting win in the Deep South in program history. The hybrid linebacker will play for recruiter Jon Sumrall in Lexington after picking the Wildcats over Auburn. Wallace will arrive this summer, but now it’s pretty clear the defense will try him out at Mike first due to the need. The coaching staff was not pumping the brakes regarding his potential on national signing day.

“What I love about him is he’s so athletic,” Stoops said. “When I’m recruiting a skill guy, whether it be a corner or wide receiver, you like to see a guy do multiple things: kick return, punt return, play different positions. With Trevin, for a linebacker to have that versatility is really amazing. You see him with the ball in his hands taking a direct snap at quarterback, playing running back, punt return, kick return, and of course, playing linebacker. [He’s] Extremely athletic, real versatile and can really run. I’m really high on him.”

Martez Thrower: Another South Georgia linebacker, Thrower will arrive on campus this summer. The Rochelle (Ga.) Wilcox County product recorded 120 tackles last season and will bring positional versatility to Sumrall’s room. The versatile linebacker picked Kentucky over Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, and Minnesota. He is a big-time striker.

“Martez strikes people with bad intentions,” said Sumrall. “His high school career, his coach every couple weeks would be sending me a picture of a face mask that got broken because he was hitting so hard.”

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