LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Kentucky seeks a leader on defense and is fortunate to have several candidates not only ready to take charge, but willing to share the spotlight if it means ending a four-year slide.
Middle linebacker Josh Forrest, safety A.J. Stamps and cornerback Fred Tiller are the most likely choices for the Wildcats, who aim to rebound from a season-ending six-game losing streak and 5-7 finish. That senior trio was among the Wildcats' top eight tacklers last season and combined for eight interceptions.
Whether they follow recent Kentucky defensive stars such as linebackers Bud Dupree and Avery Williamson to the NFL isn't as important as leading the program back to respectability. Certainly, seeing their former teammates perform at the next level motivates them to stand out.
"It opened our eyes that we played with them and can be in their shoes," Stamps said on media day Friday. "We saw them put in all the hard work while they were here, and now it's up to us to put in the same work and follow in their footsteps."
Dupree went 22nd overall in the first round to the Pittsburgh Steelers this spring, while Za'Darius Smith was picked in the fourth round by the Baltimore Ravens. Williamson was a fifth-round pick by the Tennessee Titans the previous year and is a key part of their defense after making several starts last season.
Kentucky made some strides last season under coordinator D.J. Eliot, ranking second in the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin at plus-8 thanks to 15 interceptions. The Wildcats picked off only three passes in 2013.
The Wildcats got four interceptions from Stamps and two each from Tiller and Forrest, who returned one for a touchdown and made a team-best 110 tackles.
The main task is rebounding from the skid that denied them a bowl bid following a 5-1 start. Kentucky allowed averages of 471 yards and nearly 44 points per contest over those final six games against in a schedule that featured Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia and Louisville.
A priority will be to fill the pass-rushing voids left by the departures of Dupree and Smith. Third-year coach Mark Stoops said Friday that while Kentucky can't replace those two stars, he expects inside linebackers such as Forrest and a veteran secondary to step up and offset Kentucky's inexperience at outside linebacker. For Forrest, that means applying what Williamson and Dupree taught him and asserting himself.
"I have more responsibility, and since my freshman year I saw how it worked as one person kind of assumed the leadership role," said Forrest, adding that he has been given more freedom this season. "From Avery to Bud and now to me, I'm ready for it."
However, Tiller notes that with six seniors among seven returning starters on defense, any of them are capable of taking charge. And with Kentucky seeking its first postseason appearance since 2010, achieving it might require collective leadership.
"I think everybody's going to be a leader," said Tiller, who roomed with Dupree as a sophomore and recently talked with Williamson. "You've got so many different parts with Josh leading the linebackers, and we've got a bunch of old guys in the secondary. We know the defense, so everybody can step up."