Mark Stoops is typically a traditionalist when it comes to selecting players to represent Kentucky at SEC media days.
The Wildcats’ fourth-year head coach usually takes proven veterans to serve as the spokesmen for his program, but he broke from that pattern last week. Instead, among the three Wildcats who accompanied Stoops to Hoover, Alabama, was linebacker Courtney Love, who has yet to play a single down in a Kentucky uniform.
“It does speak about what I feel about Courtney and obviously his leadership abilities,” Stoops said Tuesday during his “SEC car wash” appearance at ESPN headquarters. “He’s a special guy.”
Love sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska, but still managed to make an enormous difference while leading the Kentucky scout team.
“Last season it was tough, but I knew what my role was on the team and I knew what I had to do during that time,” Love told reporters last week at media days. “I could not waste any time. I had to show guys what I took from Nebraska.”
Count Stoops among the folks who noticed. He expects the fourth-year junior to lead an inside linebackers group that is loaded with youth and inexperience. And beyond that, Stoops believes Love’s personality will impact his entire roster.
“He’s a guy that had an impact on our team while he was redshirting, and to come in and do it in an unassuming way,” Stoops said. “The way he lives his life, the way he goes about his work, the way he does things has a positive effect on anybody he comes in contact with. It’s more about those things than it is about what he did on the field for me because I see the way he affects our football team in a positive way.”
Stoops has big holes to fill in his defensive front seven. Gone are linebackers Josh Forrest, Jason Hatcher, Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson, as are defensive linemen Farrington Huguenin, C.J. Johnson and swingman Jabari Johnson. Six of last season’s top seven tacklers are no longer around.
That’s why transfers Love and De'Niro Laster -- another fourth-year junior linebacker, who transferred from Minnesota -- are especially valuable for the Wildcats this year.
“We needed some experience at that position,” Stoops said. “It certainly helps us.”
Love and Laster are members of an unusually large group of transfer linebackers expected to make instant impacts in the SEC this season. Rommel Mageo, who led Oregon State with 87 tackles last season, fills a desperate need at Ole Miss this season. Likewise, Auburn’s T.J. Neal (109 tackles, 14 tackles for loss last season at Illinois) could be a plug-and-play guy for a defense that lost nearly every linebacker of note from 2015.
Perhaps Love’s central role in the Kentucky defense has not been as well-publicized as those of the graduate transfers at Ole Miss and Auburn, but he is without question one of the most important players at Kentucky.
This is a team aiming to end a five-year bowl drought, and it seems to have the offensive pieces in place to have a chance. The reconstructed defense needs someone to point it in the right direction, and who could be better a more obvious choice than a middle linebacker?
“I lead the defense, I have to make the calls and make the necessary adjustments that the coaches don’t really see when we were out there on the field,” Love said. “I have to put people in the right position and get guys lined up. I also have to show these guys they are safe all the time and they have someone they can lean on. I really just have to be a leader overall for this team.”