Attrition has exacted a heavy price on the Kentucky defensive line over the last several months. Like a cat burglar lurking in the dark, it has stolen not only graduated talent: All-SEC tackle Myron Pryor, reserve tackle Nii Adjei Oninku, and starting end Ventrell Jenkins, no, the thievery didn't stop there; UK has also suffered the loss of All-SEC defensive end Jeremy Jarmon (one-year ban by the NCAA, ending his collegiate career), and tackle Josh Minton (recurring knee problems, also ending his career). Not to mention linebacker Johnny Williams (graduation), who moved up to one end spot from his normal strongside linebacker position on passing downs.
If one needs statistics to clarify the loss, look no further -- The mentioned players accounted for: 173 tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, 14 pass break-ups, and 13 quarterback hurries. There simply is no debating the fact that UK lost an inordinate amount of talent, experience, leadership, and most importantly, results, on the defensive line. But, hope is working out at the Nutter Complex nearly every day.
Although UK lost a significant amount of ability, the coaching staff feels the returning talent (ever how meager), as well as several newcomers, will ably plug the holes left by the departures. And it all begins with ...
... my selection as Highlighted Player of the Position ...
Defensive Tackle, Corey Peters
Over the last three years, the Louisville Central product can lay claim to 97 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. His productivity, even though proficient, has at times been overshadowed by the hulking figures of Jeremy Jarmon and Myron Pryor. But 2009 is Peters' year. It has to be his year, because if it isn't, UK could be in trouble trying to plug up the running game, and pressuring the passer.
Thankfully, confidence in the 6'3", 290 lb Peters' abilities is not in short supply. Defensive coordinator Steve Brown said:
"He just makes quiet plays and does his job. Myron (Pryor) was more flashy. I remember talking to Corey this spring and saying, "If you work just a little harder, you could be All-SEC.' He said to me, 'Really?' That tells me he doesn't even know how good he can be. I don't think he has a mean bone in his body. If he did he could be great."
Defensive line coach Rick Petri added: "Corey Peters has played three years for us, never misses practices or games (Peters has played in 25 straight games), plays either tackle spot, and plays well against whoever he lines up against. He hasn't had the publicity that others have, but he's had just as big of a presence and impact on what we've done defensively the last three years. From the day he stepped in here, he's helped us be better."
Looks as if somebody knows how good Peters can be.
Last season, working full-time from the tackle position, Peters accumulated these numbers: 36 tackles (25 solo tackles), 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, two pass break-ups, and three quarterback hurries. Peters' unique blend of size and quickness makes him especially effective in stopping the up-the-gut run, and pressuring the quarterback. The numbers, though, suggest that UK must improve in one of those areas if the 'Cats expect to be competitive this year: Last season UK allowed 1,810 yards on the ground (9th in the SEC), but they were third in the league in sacks with 32. Clearly, Peters' opus is to better his run-stopping performance, while also bouying his fuzzy-faced teammates.
Which means, not only will Peters be expected to perform on the field, he will now be looked upon to provide leadership. With Peters and tackle Ricky Lumpkin (the only other returning player with a sack) being the only two vastly experienced linemen, Corey must lead, something he's not accustomed to doing. The cerebral Peters said this, when asked about leading the young:
"We'll have a lot of young players. It's something that I'm looking forward to. I've accepted the challenge. I'm going to have to lead by example, and be more vocal than I'd like to be."
Peters has an opportunity looking him squarely in the eye. An opportunity to lead a defense as Jarmon, Wesley Woodyard, and Myron Pryor have done before him. He says he's "accepted the challenge." I say, Kentucky football will be a much more enriching experience in 2009 if that challenge is indeed met.
Other Returning Players 2008 Stats -- Tackles Solo Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks
Ricky Lumpkin -- 6'4", 295 lb junior left tackle: 17 7 3.5 1
Comments: Lumpkin has battled injuries his entire UK career. But, when he's healthy he's a demon for the opposition to deal with. He's very strong and a fierce pass rusher. There's no doubt his training room visits will play a role in how effective the defensive line is in 2009. He's currently listed as the projected starting left tackle.
Shane McCord -- 6'2", 280 lb junior right tackle: 5 1 .5 ---
Comments: McCord played in 11 games last year, and is currently second on the depth chart to Corey Peters at the right tackle slot.
Chandler Burden -- 6'4", 294 lb sophomore end: 4 2 --- ---
Comments: Burden also recorded two pass break-ups and two quarterback hurries. With the loss of Jeremy Jarmon, Burden is being looked at very seriously by the coaching staff as being a competent replacement for Jarmon at the right end spot. He's one of the strongest players on the team, and he also possesses the speed to get to the passer. He's experienced some technique troubles, but hopefully he'll conquer those issues.
Luke McDermott -- 6'1", 260 lb sophomore tackle: 5 4 --- ---
Comments: The Trinity High School alum currently sits third on the UK depth chart at the right tackle spot.
Collins Ukwu-- 6'5", 250 redhsirt freshman left end:
Comments: He is considered by the coaching staff to be very athletic, and in possession of surprising speed for such a big man. But, his inexperience will surely reveal itself throughout the season. He has, after-all, never played in a college game. Ukwu and his youth are currently listed first on the depth chart at the left end position.
Taylor Wyndham -- 6'4", 225 lb sophomore right end:
Comments: Wyndham had a good spring, impressing the coaches enough to place him second on the depth chart at the right end spot. At 225 lbs he obviously needs to work on his bulk and strength.
Greg Meisner -- 6'1", 233 lb sophomore left end:
Comments: Meisner has yet to play a game at UK due to shoulder injuries. In the spring, though, he impressed the staff with his frenetic play. In the Blue-White Spring game he recorded three tackles, a sack, and one pass break-up. He's currently listed as the number two left end behind Collins Ukwu.
Also returning to the UK defensive line are sophomore Jacob Lewellen, a 6'3", 240 lb end out of Manual High School in Louisville, 6'3", 280 lb sophomore tackle Antwane Glenn, and Henry Clay alumni Michael Gardner, a 6'2", 220 lb sophomore end. All three are currently listed third on the depth chart at their respective positions.
DeQuin Evans -- 6'3", 260 junior end: Evans, a junior-college transfer from Los Angeles' Harbor College, is the 15th ranked JUCO prospect by Rivals.com. In Evans' two-year junior college career (15 games) he recorded 63 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and four pass break-ups. He will, without a doubt, challenge for one of the starting end spots. I think Rich Brooks agrees:
"DeQuin Evans is a guy who really should be in a position to compete for the starting spot at right defensive end."
More than any other player on UK's defensive line, Evans is being looked at to supply the lost pass rush from the end position. The optimistic muse that Evans' explosiveness off the ball should play a large role in UK staying around that 30-35 sack number from last season. Because of the importance of pressuring the young quarterbacks in the SEC, Evans' skill-set, luckily, seems to be what Dr. Brooks ordered. It will be an interesting, and hopefully an enjoyable experience, witnessing whether Evans delivers, or not.
Mark Crawford -- 6'1", 305 lb sophomore left tackle: Crawford, a JUCO transfer from Coffeyville, KS, enrolled at UK in January. He was rated the 27th best JUCO prospect in the nation by SuperPrep. In eight games last season he recorded 6.5 sacks. The book on Crawford says that he's tremendous against the run, and a solid pass rusher. The Indianapolis Ben Davis alum is currently listed second on the depth chart at the left tackle spot.
Patrick Ligon-- 6'4", 265 lb end: Ligon, out of Christian Brother's High School in Memphis, made 44 tackles last season, with 21 tackles for loss, and eight sacks. Ideally, Ligon will be redshirted, but with some eligibility issues still unresolved at his position, he may be forced into action. Ligon is considered a 2-star prospect by Scout.com.
Mister Cobble -- 6'0", 270 lb tackle: Cobble, out of newly minted UK pipeline Louisville Central High School, is a two-time First Team All-State selection, and is rated the sixth best college prospect in Kentucky by SuperPrep. He's a Scout.com 3-star prospect. Cobble could very well be pressed into service in '09. With his credentials, the coaches have to take a look.
Myron Walker-- 5'10", 264 lb tackle: Out of Archbishop Rummel in Metarie, Louisiana, Walker was one of the top-28 prospects in the talent-rich Pelican State, according to SuperPrep. Rivals.com rates him as one of the top-100 defensive tackles in the nation. Rivals rates him a 3-star recruit.
UK is still awaiting official word on 6'3", 265 lb end Dante Rumph. Rumph, who attended Fork Union (Va,) Military Academy last year after signing with UK in 2008, is waiting his latest SAT test scores to arrive, which will determine his eligibility. Rumph, who played his high school ball in South Carolina, was First Team All-State his senior year as voted on by the AP (covering all classifications) after delivering 107 tackles,and 14 sacks his senior year. The highly sought after defensive end will play, and play a lot, if he makes it to campus.
UK's defensive line, as young as it is, has a righteous order to fill: Their run defense needs to be at least as "good" as last years, but the real impetus of this year's line will be on pressuring the passer. With the SEC saturated with young, inexperienced quarterbacks, the ability to pressure the passer will be at a premium: Florida's perpetual Heisman Candidate Tim Tebow, Ole Miss' Jevan Snead, and UK's Mike Hartline are the only SEC signal-callers to have more than a cup-a-coffee's worth of collegiate experience. Steve Brown and Rick Petri would be well served to use that fact to their advantage, something I feel they, and every other SEC defensive brain-trust will do.
The need for the defensive line to put pressure on the quarterback falls directly in line with Brown's defensive philosophy, which is to pressure without blitzing. So if UK's youthful trench-men don't put the requisite pressure on the passer, then Brown will be forced to at least consider the blitz, which will then alter the way the secondary covers. Brown would be left with no choice though, because quite simply, an unharrassed quarterback is the most dangerous kind, even if he is young and inexperienced. Someboday will have to step up.
Brown put it like this:
"If we're not as good up front, we've just go to do than much better of a job at linebacker and in the secondary. We've got to either create some stuff or just cover a little bit longer. It all works hand-in-hand."
Going into the season, though, a lot is hoped for, a lot is expected. The D-Line unit will be watched very closely by fans and opponents alike. Because the master key needed to ensure UK's continued defensive improvement (which greatly effects the odds for success in '09), squarely rests on the shoulders of UK's green giants.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!