They think they have the guys to do it, too.
"Well we lost all of our linebackers due to graduation and other circumstances," said Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter. "I've got four brand new guys lining up out there all across the board. The challenge of coaching is to replace those guys and put the right guy in the right place at the right time."
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, last year's leading tackler, not only on the team, but in the Southeastern Conference, is looking to realize his NFL dreams. Winston Guy, a hybrid defender, finished second in the SEC in tackles right behind Trevathan. These are two of the gaping holes that head coach Joker Phillips and Minter will be looking to fill this spring and into next season.
With Phillips and Minter looking for guys to step up, two players have stood out: sophomores Alvin Dupree and Malcolm McDuffen.
Both were limited in their action in the 2011 season, but each saw time on the field in every game last year. Dupree earned a starting spot in the final three games of the season and made 14 of his 21 tackles during his three starts, including 2.5 sacks. McDuffen was stuck behind the All-American Trevathan, but still managed 9 tackles for the season.
"McDuffen is playing really fast, especially when he knows what's going on," said Phillips. "I think he has a chance to be a big-time backer here."
Phillips showed even more excitement when asked about Dupree.
"Aw... he will be the next big time backer, no doubt about that," Phillips said emphatically. "He's physical. He's one of the stronger guys. He's one of the leaders of this football team."
Just a rising sophomore, Phillips has been pleasantly surprised with how much of a leader Dupree has become. Phillips acknowledged that Dupree even set up a tutor session for his History class and that he's really been vocal and led this spring on the football field.
"The guy's a freshman. I mean he's 18 years old," said Phillips. "He looks like he's a senior, but he's 18 years old, and he's one of the leaders of our football team. I like that. He's running around, screaming and hollering, and getting everybody pumped up. That's important that a guy who's got a chance to be a big time player is that way also."
The difficult thing for this young defense is grasping the concepts and schemes of second-year defensive coordinator Rick Minter. Minter, who has his work cut out for him in replacing six defensive starters, feels like his players are giving great effort despite their youth and that it's important to continue to plow away. He knows McDuffen and Dupree, along with the rest of the youngsters on defense, have to step up in order for this defense to compete in the SEC next season.
"Malcolm McDuffen is the heir apparent to the old guy," said Minter. "He's stepping up and doing quite well. We've got to keep developing the depth at that position."
McDuffen and Dupree feel that last season's experience and the spring season has really helped the team get a better grasp of Minter's defense.
"We all take initiative to know the defense more," said McDuffen. "Everybody, not just one person, the mic, the will, but just everybody knowing their position and what's going on at all times."
"I think we're taking it in well," said Dupree of new material being thrown at them every day. "We're coming along slowly but surely. Each day we get better. The first day, we're always kind of sluggish, but the second day of installation is better."
One of the strengths of the Kentucky football program over the last few years has been their ability to find their heir apparent and next stud linebacker. When Micah Johnson left, Trevathan filled right in at the linebacker position. Now the tradition looks to continue and Dupree and McDuffen have a grasp on what it will take to continue that legacy.
"Always go hard, never slack off," said Dupree when asked what he's learned from Guy and Trevathan. "Since I've been here, that's what I've seen, so I just try to mimic them."
Now they have to take what they've learned to from their leaders and convert that into results on the field like their predecessors did. Their coaches continue to sing the praises of the new breed on the defensive side, but ultimately the results are up to these two young men. McDuffen and Dupree know the onus is on them to help fill the voids left by last year's two biggest playmakers, but they don't just want to be like them, they want to be better.
"Oh yeah, most definitely, we're trying to come in here and take over their shine," said Dupree laughing. "We're trying to bring the defense to another level."