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By almost all measurements the 2011 UK football season was a disappointment.
One exception to that evaluation was the play of senior linebacker Danny Trevathan and senior hybrid safety Winston Guy. The duo ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the Southeastern Conference in tackles and were the only NFL draft picks from a UK team that finished the season at 5-7.
Trevathan and Guy were two of six starters UK lost on defense from last year’s team, leaving a pair of big holes to fill. In their place, the Wildcats are turning to sophomores Malcolm McDuffen and Miles Simpson.
“I know I’m not Winston Guy,” Simpson, who is listed at No. 1 at the hybrid safety/linebacker position on the depth chart, said. “I’m not trying to be Winston Guy. I’m trying to be myself and do my own thing.”
“I’m just trying to come out here each and every day, work hard and try to be the best player I can be,” McDuffen, who is slotted at No. 1 on the depth chart at Trevathan’s vacated weakside linebacker position, said. “I try to listen and just try to remember everything I learned from Danny Trevathan and just try to put it from him to the field.”
Both players have received positive reviews from coaches early in fall camp. On Saturday, McDuffen returned an interception for a touchdown in UK’s first scrimmage.
“There’s competition at (weakside linebacker) right now,” said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter. “He’s one of those guys competing.
“He’s right there. He’s running with the ones right now, but he’s being pushed.”
Simpson also faces competition from redshirt freshman Josh Forrest and sophomore Kory Brown as well as several freshmen, but he is considered the clear-cut starter at the hybrid position.
“He’s another guy that is starting to be a leader over there, do the necessary things that allow you to be excited about him also,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips. “He’s always in good position, smart guy, he’s a film guy. Always has leverage. He plays with his weight over the balls of his feet, keeps his head up. He’s a great tackler. We’re excited about him.”
The hybrid safety/linebacker position is one of the unique aspects of Minter’s defensive scheme, and it was a major asset for the defense in 2011 with Guy playing there for the first time. Simpson is still working to master the multitude of roles the position entails.
“My position is more of a multi-purpose position because it’s truly a down safety/linebacker,” he said. “It’s a hybrid, but now we’re putting in some stuff where I’m down on the line too. I have to be able to get the big guys, be able to cover and do a little bit of everything.”
Simpson, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds in the media guide, is still adjusting to going up against offensive linemen who might outweigh him by as much as 100 pounds.
“I’m not used to that,” he said. “I’m used to running behind them. It’s a little bit of a change. I’m starting to get it though.”
McDuffen is listed ahead of redshirt freshmen Demarius Rancifer on the depth chart at weakside linebacker. True freshman Khalid Henderson, who was among the highest rated players in the 2012 recruiting class, could also push for time at the position.
“It’s good to always have somebody behind you to compete with rather than having it given to you,” McDuffen said. “A little hard work ain’t going to hurt nobody.”
On media day, Henderson said he expected to play early this season and wasn’t even considering the possibility he might redshirt.
“It’s not even an option,” he said.
Even if McDuffen or Simpson are supplanted by competition at their position, the UK defense will feature plenty of new faces this season. The duo combined for 14 tackles in 2011 and are the only returning linebackers outside of starters Alvin Dupree and Avery Williamson to record a tackle last season.
Both players said that inexperience shouldn’t be a worry for fans.
“They should be looking for improvement in speed and knowing where we need to be,” McDuffen said. “We’re trying to build a lot and build better leadership and trying to have more than just one leader on the defense and at the linebacker core.”
“It’s something new,” Simpson added. “Everybody likes something new.”
During UK fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks and wide receivers.