LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Courtney Love chalks up his promising season anchoring Kentucky's defense to finally getting the chance to regularly play.
Now, the senior middle linebacker's goal is to help make the Wildcats one of the Southeastern Conference's best defensive units.
Love was the Wildcats' third-leading tackler in 2016 with 76 stops, which he believes should have been higher. But it provided an encouraging baseline for the Nebraska transfer, whose leadership has already earned the attention of national award committees.
''I have more familiarity with the plays and can recognize things better and quicker,'' said Love, who's on the watch list for the Lott IMPACT trophy that recognizes performance and community service.
''I'm just trying the take right steps toward stopping the run and stopping the pass, recognizing formations and seeing the offensive line better.''
The Wildcats quickly came to trust Love, one of four Kentucky players from Youngstown, Ohio along with coach Mark Stoops. Love had six tackles in 12 games for the Cornhuskers in 2014 before transferring to Lexington seeking a bigger defensive role.
Kentucky ended up providing everything Love wanted.
Hungry to play after sitting out the 2015 season per NCAA transfer rules, the 6-foot-2, 242-pound Love debuted with nine tackles and a quarterback hurry against Southern Miss last September. He went on to stabilize the middle while starting all 13 contests.
Love's recovery of a late fumble by eventual Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson not only set up Kentucky's game-clinching drive in a 41-38 victory against rival Louisville, but was another of example of his ability to be in the right place at the right time.
''He wants to be successful because he wants his team to be successful,'' Stoops said of Love this summer. ''Anybody that has a heart like that is going to get better and play to the best of his ability. And I can't tell you the effect he has on our football team, not only between the white lines, but when we're off the field.''
The objective for Love and Kentucky's deep linebacker corps this season is being an even bigger factor, especially against the run. An improved pass rush is also critical after the Wildcats tied for 11th in the SEC with just 21 sacks.
While Love yearns to build on his lone sack - at Alabama, yet - his priority is making sure he and teammates handle their responsibilities. If they succeed, he can't help but benefit.
''I felt a little left out in the pass rush, but it's the role I've got to play,'' Love said. ''And whatever role I play, I'm going to be the best at it and make sure I can help my team win games.''
Kentucky opens the season on Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi against USM, seeking to atone for blowing a 25-point lead in the 44-35 home loss to the Golden Eagles.
The Wildcats believe they have come a long way since that game.
Junior linebackers such as Jordan Jones (team-high 109 tackles), Denzil Ware (5.5 sacks) and Josh Allen (team-high seven sacks) look to be more aggressive on the outside. Sophomores Kash Daniel and Eli Brown figure to be more involved.
Love wants to be more disruptive in the center of it all.
''If you're not on your P's and Q's, he will come downhill and hit you in the mouth,'' junior center Bunchy Stallings said. ''That's what I like about Courtney; he's physical and doesn't complain. He's just going to do his job the best he can and challenges us every day to play fast and physical.''
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