While it's fair to wonder who will become the next Danny Trevathan or Winston Guy, the key playmakers from last year's Kentucky defense, it's the responsibility of players like Collins Ukwu and Martavius Neloms, both seniors, to help the next wave of defenders settle in.
Heading into the 2012 season, Ukwu has been a mainstay in the Kentucky defense his first three years. He has started 24 of the 35 games he has played in his career at defensive end, and in limited time last season due to injury, had 28 tackles including 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.
The defense will be leaning heavily on Ukwu to pick up the slack as he looks to have his best season of his career. But this spring, he has sat out contact drills with another injury. That doesn't keep him from helping his teammates get up to speed in a relatively new defensive scheme.
Ukwu is part of a relatively veteran-laden defensive line; a group that he says has to set the tempo for the rest of the defense this spring.
"That's the main key. That's the most important thing," said Ukwu. "If we're not going, the whole defense is down, and the level of play is down. So we set the tempo at the beginning of practice to the end of practice, so we're the main focus of it."
While Ukwu is holding down the fort in the front lines, Neloms is anchoring the secondary heading into his second season at safety. Neloms was third on the team in tackles last season with 71, his first at a new position after transitioning from cornerback his first two seasons. Third on the team in tackles is pretty impressive considering departed stars Trevathan and Guy were the only two players who had more last season for Kentucky.
"I feel like I have to be more vocal out there," said Neloms. "I need to take on the learning curve, because I feel like once I know exactly what to do, I can tell other guys what to do. I want to be the all-around leader on the field and off the field."
And that is exactly what a young defense needs.
The Wildcats held their first scrimmage over the weekend. The defense seemed to make the most impact.
"The thing I saw on the defensive side is how fast they started," said head coach Joker Phillips Wednesday. "They stopped the number one offense, three straight series. That means our defense was playing well."
Defensive line coach David Turner agreed, but reiterated that has group still has a long way to go to get to where it needs to be. The effort is there, but the determination and focus to be great is what Turner is primarily concerned about. But he's been pleased with the way that Ukwu has pushed and helped his teammates even if he's unable to participate.
"Collins Ukwu is a young man not going through spring practice. I told him to coach up those guys," said Turner. "Collins has played a lot of football here, been successful, and played in this league, and knows what the guys are going to see. And he's kind of taken some of those young guys and coached them up, which is good."
But Ukwu knows that there is still a lot of work left to do this spring and heading into the season. That's why he feels the responsibility to try to bring the other guys up to that level.
"It's pretty good knowing that you got guys that have talent that are backing you up," said Ukwu. "And what I'm doing now is making sure these guys are on the same level, so I try to coach them up as much as I can, because I want the guy who backs me up to be just as good as me."
Kentucky feels like its depth will allow them to fill some of those spots. In fact, despite the youth and inexperience, these players think they can be as good, if not better than last season. The key will be getting more familiar with the defensive playbook.
"I think we can be as good, if not better," said Neloms. "Because everybody's taking responsibility learning the playbook. The guys are coming in studying extra hard, and the coaches are demanding the most out of us every day. So either you know it, or you don't. If you don't know it, you're not going to play."
While the players, both veterans and inexperienced underclassmen, are plugging away during the offseason, Turner would still like to see the effort and focus increased. He knows it won't be easy, but in order for these guys to be as good as they want them to be, they need to appreciate the work that goes in to being great, to be like the players who played before them.
"Once again, it goes back to being consistent, showing up every day," said Turner. "That's what we've got to do. The big thing talking to the guys, it's not going to be easy, you can't expect it to be easy. You've got to come out here and grind and work. And that's the attitude I'm starting to see some of the guys adapt to."