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September 7, 2012

Phillips will shake up linebacker spot to find right mix

There's no more Danny Trevathan on the field in that Kentucky jersey. No more Winston Guy, either.

The Wildcats' linebacking corps still is making the adjustment to life without those two leaders.

"It's a transition that has to take place," linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. "And when the guys are young, sometimes it takes a little longer for those guys to take that ownership and leadership."

Smith said the players who "took a backseat" to Trevathan and Guy last year are now the same ones who must "become the impact players" on defense.

It didn't happen in the season-opening loss at Louisville. Head coach Joker Phillips said that, while the defensive line took the brunt of the criticism, the linebackers "had to play better."

To facilitate that improvement, the unit will continue to be shuffled until it gets "that right chemistry," Smith said.

The shuffling will include a likely change at weakside linebacker. Tyler Brause started against Louisville;Malcolm McDuffen is listed at No. 1 on the depth chart for Saturday's game against Kent State.

Smith said the starting spot this week isn't set in stone. It's part of the ongoing process to find the right combination of players who can garner compliments and complement each other.

And while the coaches are still trying to find the formula, the players have to stay level-headed. Brause described getting named the starter against Louisville as "exciting," while McDuffen was disappointed. This week, the order is reversed, as are the feelings.

But they know that it could be completely different all over again in a week's time.

"We take a lot of pride in being a team around here and supporting each other," Brause said. "When I was named the starter, (McDuffen) was there for me. It's my turn to be there for him."

With a position battle between the two veterans still underway, Phillips said he also will give two freshman linebackers, Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas, opportunities to play against Kent State.

"Talent will overcome experience any day," Phillips said. "You're making mistakes as a sophomore or junior, it's no different than a freshman who's really talented."

Giving the freshmen playing time won't be a significant change in the composition of the linebacking corps, though, at least when it comes to experience. Starting middle linebacker Avery Williamson is a junior; starting strongside linebacker Alvin Dupree is a sophomore; Brause and McDuffen are sophomores; and starting hybrid safety/linebacker Miles Simpson is a sophomore.

"There is no old guy at linebacker," Smith said. "They're all young. They're all inexperienced. They're all still learning."

They're all still trying to become their own versions of Trevathan and Guy, leaders who could take control of a game and anchor the unit.

McDuffen described Williamson - who had a team-leading 12 tackles against Louisville - as the "voice of our defense."

Around him, players are still fighting for position on the depth chart. They each bring something different. Smith described McDuffen as a faster, more physical player, while Brause relies more on his intellect.

But however they can accomplish it, Smith is looking for one thing from his potential starter, as well as from his linebacker unit as a whole.

"Just a guy who's going to fly around," Smith said, "and make the plays."


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