The back still has not healed fully even though a variety of tests, including a visit to a chiropractor, have revealed no serious injury.
"They don't really know what it is," Schuler said. "The doctors and trainers say it is a lower back sprain that just hasn't fully healed. It has gotten better, but I have still been kind of timid with my back. I have to quit thinking about that and play as hard as I can.
"I even went to a chiropractor and had an adjustment, but that's not made a real big difference, either. The trainers have done everything possible to help me. I just have to deal with the pain. It's more a mental thing. I just have to fight through it because physically there is nothing wrong with me. I just have to learn to play in the pain."
He has to get past the pain
Defensive coordinator Mike Archer listed Schuler at No. 1 at left outside linebacker going into spring practice. Archer sympathizes with the pain Schuler feels, but he also understands that Schuler has to get past the pain.
"Joe's back is going to be a problem," Archer said. "There's nothing physically wrong. It's just a pain issue. He's at a stage right now where he has pain in his back and it won't go away. I go through the same thing myself at 51. He's just going through it at 19 or 20.
"Our doctors have said he just has to deal with it, and he has. But it is an issue with him."
Schuler insists the pain won't make him waste the opportunity he's been given. He thought he might play last year when he came to Kentucky after a standout prep career in Evansville, Ind. He was used at inside linebacker during training camp before he played outside linebacker on the scout team during a scrimmage and impressed the coaches so much with his playmaking ability that he was moved outside immediately.
"They didn't ask me what I thought of the move. They just knew that was the place they needed me, and that was fine with me," Schuler said.
Still, he had trouble learning the system and was redshirted, even though UK lacked depth at outside linebacker.
"It's amazing how much more I know about our defense now," Schuler said. "I have learned so much without even realizing it. I know so much more about the terminology and positioning.
"There is still more I need to learn, but I have made big improvements. I am still working on my techniques. They are all still kind of sloppy, and I want to correct that this spring."
Outside linebackers need to make big plays
Archer wants his outside linebackers to make big plays in UK's 3-4 defensive alignment. The inside linebackers will make more tackles, but the outside linebackers have a chance to make more tackles for losses.
"The more you do your assignment, the more other guys can make tackles, too," Schuler said. "You can still make tackles, but my main job is to help other guys make tackles. I will still get my chance to get sacks, but my primary concern is taking care of my assignment each play.
"That's why being No. 1 on the depth chart right now is no big deal. This is not game time. I am more worried about learning what I am doing now than I am where I am on the depth chart."
Still, he does look ahead. He went to the Fiesta Bowl after last season with his father and saw Ohio State beat Kansas State. That let him see the offense that UK offensive coordinator Ron Hudson used when he was at Kansas State.
"The bowl was an unreal, awesome experience and I can't wait until we get there," Schuler said. "We saw the Kansas State offense work and it made me think our team could be like that. They had a lot of weapons, but so do we. But more than anything, just being at that bowl made me see where we could be one day."
Kentucky's depth chart at outside linebacker:
1. Joe Schuler, redshirt freshman
2. Cedric Koger, junior
3. Keith Shelton, junior
1. Durrell White, sophomore
2. Raymond Fontaine, junior
3. Ryan Schumm, redshirt freshman