Wildcats Seeking New Leadership
By Matt Smith
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Coming off of a 5-7 season, Kentucky is looking for a new set of players to step up and lead the Wildcats in 2012.
It hasn’t been easy for Kentucky football the past two seasons. Yes, they upset No. 10 South Carolina in 2010 and ended a 26-game losing streak to Tennessee in last year’s finale, but the Wildcats have lost much of the momentum they generated during three straight seasons that ended in bowl wins from 2008-2010, going just 11-14 over the past two seasons.
To add insult to injury, the team’s two stars and leaders, linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy, are off to the NFL. Trevathan led the SEC in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Guy finished second in the league last year. Head coach Joker Phillips admitted that those two players are hard to replace, but expects some of the returning defensive players to fill in the void.
“Defensive end Collins Ukwu is a guy that’s going to have a breakout year. He’s committed to taking over a leadership role. Safety Tate Neloms, in his fourth year, is starting to become the leader that we thought he could be. However, they don’t always grow up as fast as we want them to.”
Ukwu, in attendance at SEC Media Days on Wednesday, said even the younger players on the defense are showing strong leadership qualities.
“We have a lot of guys who can step up like [middle linebacker] Avery Williamson to fill their roles as well.”
Senior guard Larry Warford expects the leadership roles to shift to the offense, where he and senior center Matt Smith (no relation to the author of this article) have reached out to the younger players to build chemistry within the locker room.
“We are the seniors now, Warford said. We can’t be little kids. Even stuff outside of the football, like having a cookout for the freshmen, that’s what we have to do.”
With the team needing a lot of its younger players to step up this season, Smith said he and Warford have pushed the underclassmen to be ready to play in the toughest conference in college football.
“We’ve taken on that role as being the leaders, not just for the offensive line but for the whole team. We’re showing them what it takes to play in the SEC. We have a lot of young guys that need to be ready to go. They’re picking up a lot of things faster than Larry and I did.”
Unlike last year when the Wildcats opened with a Sun Belt foe in Western Kentucky, the 2012 season begins in hostile territory – on the road against Louisville. Warford and Smith both recognize the significance of that game throughout the Bluegrass State.
“It’s a great kickstart for the whole state of Kentucky,” said Smith. “I grew up in Louisville so I know how big this game is. We don’t have a cakewalk in our opening game.”
Warford added that, “not having an NFL team [in the state] puts that much more pressure on us [when we play Louisville].”
After four straight wins against the Cardinals, Kentucky fell at home to Louisville last year, the start of a four-game losing streak that all but took the team out of bowl contention. Ukwu says that memory of last season’s defeat will fuel the team for the Sept. 2 opener.
“We need to win. Our team knows that we lost a lot of fans last year. To bring our fan base back, that’s the game where we have to win.”
While the most natural position for a team leader is the quarterback, that position still has some uncertainty. Sophomore Maxwell Smith replaced Morgan Newton last season, but later was injured and missed the landmark victory over Tennessee. Prized recruit Patrick Towles is also in the mix for the job.
“There is no clear-cut favorite. It’s a real competitive position on our football team. We have two talented quarterbacks that just walked onto campus. We probably have the best competition on our team at quarterback. [Maxwell Smith] has a leg up, but it’s an open competition.”
Trevathan and Guy might not be replaceable on the field, but Smith, Ukwu and Warford are taking steps to ensure that at least inside of the locker room, their presence won’t be missed.