LEXINGTON (AP) — Since Kentucky ended its 2011 season with a historic win over Tennessee, a lot about the defense responsible for that victory has changed.
That showed in the Blue-White spring game Saturday.
The defense had to replace six starters from a year ago, but the new-look defense looked impressive, allowing two touchdowns in 40 minutes. The format of the game put the starters against the backups, and the backups were spotted 14 points. The starters won 35-28.
The defense was very different than the one in the 10-7 win over the Volunteers — the first time the Wildcats beat their rival since 1984, breaking the nation’s longest losing streak to a single opponent.
In all, the Wildcats lost five of their top seven tacklers from 2011. Those seven players totaled 466 tackles last season, more than half of the team’s total.
Five starters graduated and linebacker Ridge Wilson was dismissed from the team in February after being arrested on felony drug charges.
Linebacker Avery Williamson led all players Saturday with eight tackles and two tackles for loss. Williamson is trying to fill the void left by Danny Trevathan, who led the Southeastern Conference in tackles in 2010 and 2011.
Williamson had 49 tackles last season as a sophomore, and coach Joker Phillips compared his career to Trevathan’s: two years of backup duties with an opportunity to break out as a junior.
“Avery was all over the place,” Phillips said. “For the amount of time he played last year, he had a lot of tackles. He had a lot of tackles for us.”
Sophomore-to-be Bud Dupree finished with one tackle, but Phillips maintains his importance moving forward. Dupree is taking over at the spot Wilson left behind, the hybrid linebacker-defensive end integral to coordinator Rick Minter’s 3-4 defense.
“The guy’s so fast off the edge, he’s what we’ve got to block week in and week out. He’s a real guy. He’s a real, SEC outside linebacker-rush backer,” Phillips said.
Quarterback Maxwell Smith, who started three games as a true freshman in 2011, finished with 353 yards passing, two touchdowns and two interceptions Saturday. Smith said his area of concern is the deep ball. Still, he connected on touchdown passes of 69 yards and 21 to Demarco Robinson.
Smith is expected to compete with senior Morgan Newton and incoming freshman Patrick Towles for the Wildcats’ starting quarterback job next season. Newton did not practice this spring while he recovered from shoulder surgery.
Whereas the quarterbacks will report to fall camp with many of the same offensive players around them, Kentucky’s defense doesn’t have that luxury. The spring game was a big step in that transition, Minter said.
“They’re coachable guys and they’re good kids. Unfortunately, they’re just young,” Minter said. “We’re going to have them grow up a little quicker than usually might be the case.”