Kentucky football fans anxiously awaiting Saturday’s 2015 kickoff in the “new” Commonwealth Stadium heard some worrisome news during head coach Mark Stoops’ initial weekly Monday press luncheon.
Ryan Flannigan, expected starter at an inside linebacker spot, is not totally back from the shoulder injury he suffered during training camp. Stoops said he met with trainer Jim Madaleno on Monday morning, and the report on Flannigan was iffy at best.
“If he can’t practice by Wednesday, he probably won’t play Saturday,” Stoops said.
Those tracking the Cats during training camp know that at least three of the four linebacker spots — if you include the defensive end/outside linebacker spots — are in a tenuous position. Depth is lacking, especially experienced depth.
Jason Hatcher’s suspension doesn’t help. Expected to come into his own now that star DE/OLB Bud Dupree has moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hatcher is suspended for both the opener with UL-Lafayette and the first road game at South Carolina on Sept. 12.
If Flannigan is unable to go, senior Khalid Henderson is the likely starter at that inside spot opposite senior Josh Forrest, a holdover starter and the backbone of the linebacking corps. Henderson has experience but has never been a consistent starter. Stoops said Monday that Henderson has done some good things in camp, and with Flannigan’s absence, he has received plenty of camp reps. Stoops said he likes Henderson’s attitude, but “he needs to continue to improve.”
True freshman Eli Brown is listed as an “or” with Henderson on the depth chart behind Flannigan. A prep standout from Bowling Green, Brown was originally scheduled to redshirt this season. He needed size and strength. But Flannigan’s injury caused Brown to let the coaches know he wanted to play. He’s picked up 10 to 15 pounds over the summer. There’s a good chance he will see action Saturday.
Behind Forrest at the “middle” linebacker spot is redshirt freshman Nico Firios, a 6-foot-2, 235-pounder from Florida who will see his first collegiate action Saturday. On Monday, Stoops praised Firios’ instincts, saying the linebacker “finds a way to get to the football. … The No. 1 objective is getting to the football.” But Firios hasn’t played and, as Stoops said, there are times when “he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Here is Flannigan from last week talking about the injury and his progress.
UL-Lafayette’s offense will demand that Kentucky get good linebacker play on Saturday. The Ragin’ Cajuns know how to run the football, and they have one of the nation’s more underrated backs in Elijah McGuire, who rushed for 1,264 yards on just 166 carries last season. That’s an average of 7.6 yards per carry.
A chunk of those yards came in two games. McGuire rushed for 265 yards on 19 carries in Lafayette’s 55-40 win over Arkansas State and 169 yards on 14 carries in a 42-23 win over Troy in the regular-season finale. McGuire also rushed for 136 at New Mexico State, 129 yards against Southern and 116 against South Alabama. He just missed a 100-yard game in the New Orleans Bowl, settling for 99 yards on 16 carries in Lafayette’s 16-3 win over Nevada.
McGuire is also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. He caught 10 passes for 106 yards in a 34-9 loss at Boise State. Over the year, the 5-11, 208-pound junior made 45 catches for 468 yards and two touchdowns.
With Hatcher suspended for Saturday, senior Jabari Johnson and redshirt freshman Denzil Ware are slated as the DE/OLB starters for the opener. True freshman Kengera Daniel, out of North Carolina, is listed as No. 2 behind Ware. And true freshman Josh Allen, out of New Jersey, is listed at No. 2 behind Johnson. That’s a lot of youth at an important position.
The good news is that Flannigan has been out for a while, and the coaches have had all camp to plan to be without Hatcher for Saturday. Replacements have received plenty of reps.
Kentucky fans hope those reps will make up for a potential trouble spot come Saturday.
Photo of Josh Forrest (45) and Ryan Flannigan (33) in last year’s Louisville game by Jonathan Palmer/Herald-Leader