Replacing Williamson: Kentucky has issues to address at linebacker
It’s always an annual challenge trying to replace an impact player, but in the SEC, coaches are paid to recruit and develop the next standout athlete in fear of the impending hot seat should seasons turn sour.
Over a two-week period, we’ll take a look at a key player loss for each program in the conference and break down that position’s potential replacements. Rest assured, a few of these guys will be household names by season’s end.
- SOUTH CAROLINA
- OLE MISS
- TODAY: Kentucky
- Monday: Texas A&M
- Tuesday: Vanderbilt
- Wednesday: Alabama
- Thursday: Florida
- Friday: Missouri
- Aug. 16: Mississippi St.
- Aug. 17: Tennessee
- Aug. 18: LSU
One would like to think so, but high-profile, first-year SEC linebackers aren’t created in factories around the Southeast. Few coaches receive the luxury of a dynamic rookie talent who can step in the middle without missing a beat.
It usually takes a defensive staff at least a year to develop noticeable production at the position and Kentucky’s hoping its only returning starter at linebacker, Khalid Henderson, can pick up some of the slack left in Avery Williamson’s wake.
“We need to improve at linebacker. We’re not as deep as we need to be,” coach Mark Stoops said at Media Days. “We’re a work in progress there.”
Williamson, a two-year starter in the middle for the Wildcats and 2014 fifth-round pick, contributed a team-best 237 tackles over the last two years and earned second-team all-league honors as a senior in 2013.
Stoops mentioned redshirt junior Josh Forrest and senior TraVaughn Paschal as possible candidates to fill Williamson’s position opposite Henderson, but he’s waiting on one of the two to win the job. Both are converted linebackers who signed with the Wildcats at other positions.
Paschal moved to inside linebacker this spring, but offseason surgery kept him in a red, non-contact jersey. Forrest took advantage of his teammate’s time on the sideline and moved to No. 1 on the depth chart in the middle heading into fall camp, but the battle continues leading up to Kentucky’s season opener.
Along the defensive line, Kentucky’s in good hands with pass-rushing specialists Bud Dupree, Za’Darius Smith and impact freshman Matt Elam. Elam is a massive 6-foot-7, 370 pounds and is every bit as talented as his five-star rating warrants.
“Imagine a big train going fast down the track,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said at Wildcats Media Day. “When you see someone that big, you just don’t expect to see an explosion and something so quick off the ball, and he has that.”