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Newton leading summer of change

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Morgan Newton threw for 211 yards in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh. (UK Athletics) Morgan Newton threw for 211 yards in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Pittsburgh. (UK Athletics)
As ill-advised as the tweet that Morgan Newton sent out a couple of weeks ago may have been, it was done with good intentions and behind a drive of change.

That tweet, which Newton has since removed from his account, expressed his frustrations over the number of teammates not willing to work hard enough to take the next step.

"Sometimes you get frustrated and that's all that was for a minute or two," Newton said Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility. "It probably wasn't the best way to put your frustration out there, but the guys responded, so it worked."

As it turns out, the tweet resulted from miscommunication in planning. Either way, it appears to be a signal of change with Newton since being tabbed the odds-on favorite to win the starting quarterback position next fall.

Based on observations, his teammates' approval and the praise of his coaching staff, Newton has turned over a new leaf of leadership now that Mike Hartline has graduated and Ryan Mossakowski has transferred.

The way everyone has explained it, Newton views the starting quarterback position as his job now. Unlike the previous two years when Newton was entangled in a battle, he doesn't plan on losing it.

"Morgan's a different guy," senior linebacker Ronnie Sneed said. "Before when Hartline was there, I could tell Morgan started to change. He was upset that he didn't win that starting position, but I believe that pushed him to prove a point."

And really, that's all Newton said he was doing with his tweet a couple of weeks ago. The junior from Carmel, Ind., said he was trying to motivate his teammates and stress the importance of working hard in the offseason.

His intentions were never to throw anyone under the bus.

"That's the kind of role I feel like the leaders need to take is having guys out here and making sure the guys are accountable for being here," Newton said. "The coaches can't be around and they can't do that part in the summer, so it's our job to have people around."

Coaches are not allowed to coach the players during the summer, meaning it's up to the players to organize any workouts or practices.

Adopting the same role that Hartline served, Newton has taken on the responsibility of organizing workouts and 7-on-7 scrimmages, evening calling players from Georgetown and Eastern Kentucky to give the UK players a different look.

Newton's teammates have responded.

"Everybody's responding about wanting to come out here and get better every day," Newton said. "It's a group of young guys that are really listening to the older guys and the older guys are trying to be the greatest role models they can be."

The word is they're learning from their leader.

"He's a workaholic," senior cornerback Randall Burden said of Newton. "He's working hard and more than he has in the past years. He's about to take this team on and lead it."

The offseason changes have resulted in what Sneed said is the best offseason he's had since he's been at UK.

"We're only as strong as our weakest link," Sneed said. "I believe that, in the previous years, we had guys who weren't 100 percent truly invested in this program like how they needed to be. But I can tell you that I've seen a difference. I've been around here awhile and I've seen a difference from when Coach Rock (Oliver) and Coach Joker (Phillips) have come in, as well as some of the leaders have come in, and grab those guys and been like, 'Hey, man, get it together. We need you.' "

The workouts in the summer, while not mandatory, are what separate the mediocre teams from the upper echelon, Sneed said.

"When you come to Division I football, especially in the SEC, everybody has talent, everybody has God-given ability, but it's what you do with that God-given ability," Sneed said. "The wins are going to come down to which teams work the hardest."

Sneed said South Carolina is proof that hard work pays off.

"South Carolina won the East and I would say they're a team that's sort of like us," Sneed said. "If South Carolina can do it, why can't Kentucky do it? They have the same type of players. People view them the same way as they view us. If they can do it, we can do it. It just came down to, I believe, those guys worked a little bit harder."

In working harder, the Wildcats have also adjusted their practice habits. At the advice of Oliver, the UK players are focusing more on their weightlifting this summer. Instead of running four times a week, the Cats are lifting four times and running twice.

Sneed said the change has paid off as guys are getting noticeably bigger. Personally, Sneed said he's put on about 10 pounds.

"We just felt that last year we might have gotten pushed around a little bit more than we wanted to," Sneed said. "If we want to elevate our game to that next level, we feel like we need to add more girth and strength. We feel like that will help us win more games than maybe being faster than the other team. We're going to take a different approach and see how this goes."

Speaking of different approaches, new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter has also implemented a new wrinkle to this summer's workouts. Since he can't physically be around to deliver instruction, Minter has recorded a voiceover for the players' film sessions.

"We're allowed to watch the film we need to watch as if we were in a meeting hearing his voice," Sneed said. "That's something that we haven't done before in the past offseason and we had to go back to our notes and try to remember the things that our coach told us before. Now we can sit back as if we're in a meeting in season and learn."

The voiceover comes at perfect time in the change to a new hybrid defense. The installation process during the spring featured tons of new terminology, schemes and alignments, concepts that are easy to forget when the coaches aren't around and the temptation of summer is at your fingertips.

Being able to hear and visualize the changes in a summer that the coaching staff has called critical in the switch is a great refresher for the players.

"It worked out for the best of us," Burden said. "Since we've had this break, before we started watching the film, we were losing some of the stuff we learned in the spring. Since he's got the videos and he's talking through it, we're starting to get back with it and learn new things."

Of course, some people will tell you you're only as good as your quarterback. Newton is doing whatever he can this summer to make sure he takes Kentucky to the next step.

Part of the maturation process has been utilizing the precious resource of former quarterback Andre' Woodson, who now serves as a student assistant on the staff.

"I can't tell you how much time I've spent watching Andre' and how they were successful and watching last year and how we could have been successful," Newton said. "He's done it. He's kind of seen the NFL, he's been toward the top of the SEC and he's been at the bottom, too, so he's seen it all."

If Newton can make a similar leap to the one Woodson took after his sophomore season, it may be the first time UK has seriously flirted with a premier bowl game since Woodson was calling the plays.

"Let's win a few games and the weather may be warmer in January," Newton said. "You want to come out here and win every game you're playing, and that's the way you've got to approach these workouts and practices. We've got to come out and get better every day. Maybe we don't want to be in Tennessee or maybe we don't want to be in Birmingham again. We love the bowl games and we know the fans like bowl games, but we want to go to some better bowl games."

The journey to those bowl games starts now.

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