New leaders expected to fill seniors’ void

To the typical fan, it appeared little had changed for Dicky Lyons Jr. as he lined up yesterday for the first day of spring practice.

Lyons, a junior wide receiver, broke from the huddle and trotted across the freshly mowed grass at the Nutter Training Facility and set himself in the slot position, a place he has become familiar with during his three seasons at UK.

Lyons listened to the shouts of his quarterback, awaiting the snap. But the calls he was hearing were not from the calm, collected quarterback he has been accustomed to in past seasons.

The realization finally hit Lyons — Andre Woodson is gone.

Woodson and a bevy of last season’s senior leaders, like linebacker Wesley Woodyard, wide receiver Keenan Burton and tight end Jacob Tamme, are not practicing in the spring for the first time in four, and for some, five years. With their absences, it is up to veterans like Lyons and junior free safety Marcus McClinton to keep the budding program moving in the right direction.

“It’s different,” McClinton said. “It’s sort of like everyone moved on and now I’m the old guy. It feels kind of funny because you’re the only person your age — me and Dicky — and if you’re not a leader, you’re forced to be a leader. You’re in a position where you have to produce and you have to set an example.”

McClinton, Lyons and sophomore defensive end Jeremy Jarmon — who will miss at least the first two weeks of spring practice after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery — will be expected to fill the leadership voids the seniors left.

The Cats’ new leaders say they are ready to take on the new responsibilities. McClinton, who endured a tough freshman year before winning back-to-back bowl games the last two seasons, said he understands what it takes to keep the program progressing.

“They passed (the torch) on to us, because when they were out doing their thing, we were right next to them helping them win games,” he said. “They sort of passed it on to us and left it up to us to finish it off.”

Head coach Rich Brooks is confident his team will build on past seasons, saying this year’s team is the most athletic he has ever had. Brooks did admit, though, that athleticism does not always translate into production.

“Obviously, there is a bigger void from this senior class than there has been in recent years,” Brooks said. “In the same token, it’s an exciting time for me as a coach knowing that there are people out there who are capable of replacing those guys, and I’m anxious to move forward with that process.”

For that process to be successful, guys like Lyons will be counted on heavily to mentor some of the younger players, especially sophomore wide out Kyrus Lanxter and redshirt freshman wide out Anthony Mosley, who will be counted on to fill the shoes of the departed Burton and Steve Johnson.

“It’s going to take a lot of effort on my part, and I’m ready to step up,” Lyons said. “The last couple of years we didn’t have to coach anybody because we all knew what we were doing. Now, (offensive coordinator) Joker (Phillips) is spending a little bit more time with the young guys, but they’re willing to work hard and work hard at it.”

And of course, two of the younger guys that will be counted on heavily this upcoming season are freshman Mike Hartline and junior Curtis Pulley, both of whom  will be competing for the starting quarterback role.

Brooks addressed the quarterback situation yesterday at a news conference, saying it is too early to tell who will be the starter in the fall. Brooks said he expects the battle to be competitive, and added freshman Will Fidler to the list of possible starters after a good first day of practice.

No matter who starts under center this season, the Cats realize there is pressure to make it to a third straight bowl. Even though the first game is more than five months away, McClinton is confident UK will not let the team’s recent success die on the shoulders of its new leadership.

“We don’t want to lose this high,” he said.