Friday, November 5, 2004

UK freshman Woodyard a bright spot

Stepping up after move from safety to linebacker

By Murray Evans
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It would be easy to understand if Wesley Woodyard felt a little overwhelmed.

Like any other freshman, he's still making the adjustment to college life. Because of Kentucky's depth issues, Woodyard has been asked not only to contribute, but to start for a struggling football team in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.

To top it off, Woodyard has endured two position changes since his arrival at Kentucky. He's back at linebacker now as the Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 SEC) prepare to host No. 8 Georgia (7-1, 5-1) on Saturday.

"My head has stopped spinning a little bit, but every week, there's something new that you have to be willing to learn," Woodyard said.

A linebacker in high school at La Grange, Ga., Kentucky coaches recruited the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Woodyard with designs of turning him into a safety. When Woodyard signed, Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said Woodyard and fellow freshman Marcus McClinton were the best safeties he had ever signed in one class.

Woodyard quickly worked into the rotation at safety, but soon Kentucky needed a productive inside linebacker. He made the move five games into the season and broke into the starting lineup three weeks ago against South Carolina. He enters Saturday's game with 26 tackles.

Woodyard is the type of player Kentucky needs to continue to recruit to become competitive in the SEC, Brooks said. Woodyard thinks it wouldn't hurt if two of his former La Grange teammates whom the Wildcats are recruiting - defensive end Braxton Kelley and wide receiver Demoreo Ford - join him at Kentucky.

"We want to get guys up here who want to win," Woodyard said.

While noting Woodyard has made his share of mistakes - including a late hit in a loss to Alabama that kept a Crimson Tide scoring drive alive - Brooks has praised his willingness to play linebacker despite being somewhat undersized.

"The thing he brings to the linebacker position is he's a guy who can make a mistake and still come back the other way and make a tackle because of his speed," Brooks said. "He's inexperienced and undersized, weight-wise, but the bottom line is he brings a lot of energy to the position.

"We get him in there now where he'll learn to play linebacker, and then next year when he gets bigger and stronger, he'll be the real deal."

Junior Jon Sumrall, the other starting inside linebacker, agrees with that assessment and said he wouldn't be surprised if Woodyard someday plays in the NFL.

"I'd go into battle with Wes any day of the week, because he'll bring it," Sumrall said. "He's a quality, quality football player. He likes to come up and hit, and he's not a small guy who's soft. He's a guy that's wired to come hit you."

Woodyard said the toughest part of changing positions is the footwork. Linebackers mostly move forward, while safeties often run backward.

"Coming into college, I was used to going forward," Woodyard said. "Then I had to get used to backpedaling, then I had to get used again to coming forward to the line. It's been sort of a crazy switch, but I love it."

Despite a successful high school career, during which La Grange won two Class AAA state titles and Woodyard received AAA state defensive player of the year honors, neither Georgia nor Georgia Tech seriously recruited Woodyard, he said. He hasn't forgotten, but like everything else, he talks about it with a smile on his face.

"When we play them, I'm going to make it my business to make them pay for it," he said. "I grew up a Georgia fan, but after I visited Kentucky, I wasn't focused on any other school."

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