Joe Mussatto/SEC Country
Denzil Ware could lead Kentucky's best pass rush in years this fall. He had 12 tackles for loss in 2016, before he started paying attention to the little things that can take his game to another level.

Kentucky football: SEC quarterbacks be-Ware, the Wildcats’ best pass rusher is refocused

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Denzil Ware couldn’t understand why his new outside linebackers coach at Kentucky was telling a story about golf legend Tiger Woods. Dean Hood, the Wildcats assistant whose job includes harnessing Ware’s talent, was going on about Woods visiting his old high school coach to work on the way he grips a club.

“I didn’t have no clue what he was talking about,” Ware said, but finally it clicked: This was a real-life parable about the importance of attention to detail. “Once he explained why he did that, it really made a lot of sense to me.”

Ware has the physical tools to be one of the most fearsome pass rushers in the Southeastern Conference. He’s a 6-foot-2, 245-pound former 4-star recruit who already has started 24 games and amassed 109 tackles, 17 ½ for loss and 6 ½ sacks in two seasons at Kentucky.

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The redshirt junior from Opp, Ala., is on the preseason All-SEC second team — and yet, there’s a sense Ware is just getting started.

“Taking off” is the way Hood described both Ware and his fellow starting outside linebacker, Josh Allen, who calls the pair Blitz Bros. (Allen had 8 ½ tackles for loss, 7 sacks last season, meaning opponents can’t only focus on neutralizing Ware.)

“They’ve just started doing the little things: awareness of backfield sets, awareness of where the tight end is, learning how to disguise a call, kind of those finer points that come as you get older,” Hood said. Ware has “taken it to another level, instead of just counting on raw ability, because he does have that kind of mentality to him — that kind of, ‘Don’t worry that the mule is blind, boys, just load the wagons’ approach. You love that, but you want to combine it with an understanding of what you’re doing.

“You don’t want to just run plays; you want to play the game. He’s really getting better at playing the game of football.”

Ware said he’s diligent about having Hood watch and critique his pass-rush mechanics. Is he starting in the right stance? Keeping his pads low? Taking a good first step? Making sure not to cross his feet?

“If I get off right, I get a sack. If I get a false start, I just get a QB hit and they live to see another day,” Ware said. “After you practice on just those little things and doing them right, once you finally mess up, you know you messed — because it just feels different.”

Because of this level of focus, Ware looks different this preseason. He’s become a playmaking machine in practice with “very few mental errors,” coordinator Matt House said, and he has the confidence in his own work now to speak up and lead the younger players on defense.

When coveted recruit Josh Paschal arrived this summer, Ware told the freshman outside linebacker, “If you’re not competing to take my job … then I can’t be your friend.” Don’t be fooled, though. Ware will do everything he can to keep Paschal on the sideline this fall.

“I know I got somebody behind me that is eager to play and that’s ready to play,” he said after Wednesday’s practice. “The only way I’m going to be able to stay on top and keep my spot is if I perform the right way and do what I’m supposed to do. Knowing that I got somebody on my butt, who is close to doing what I do, I gotta find another way to make plays. I gotta find an extra step.”

That’s where the Tiger Woods story comes into play. Ware first impressed Hood with things a coach can’t teach — “Man, he is a physical player, loves the physical part of the game, wants to practice, never wants to come out” — but now he’s turning heads with his willingness to learn.

“That’s what separates good people from the great people,” Ware said. “They find those little things.”