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2015 Position Preview: Nose Tackle

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It's Chapter One of ASoB’s season preview. Today we talk about one of the deepest - if not the deepest - position on the team.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Summer-time blogging should be a streamlined affair. Nothing too complicated. Provide quality content and then get thee outdoors. Alas, skin tone sacrifices had to be made for previewing the upcoming football season. This is a series worth doing well, or at least attempting to do so. After all, this might be the first Kentucky season to be more positive than negative in five long, grueling years.

Over the next forty some days, leading up to opening week, Keith and I will be writing previews divided by positions. Zipp Duncan, former All-SEC UK lineman, has also generously offered to help. I think this will be fun to write, and hopefully for you to read. They'll all be collected in a "2015 Season Preview" story stream below the fold for easy accessibility (that will get posted next week). I'll also attach some X's and O's posts from last summer to serve as reference material in case you're feeling so inclined.

That's probably more preamble than appropriate, but I'm excited about our series. Thanks for reading!

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A good nose tackle is technically sound, athletic, while also having the density of a white dwarf star. His job is to basically maintain his position on the line of scrimmage while usually more than one offensive lineman attempts to remove him from the offense's point of attack. If a nose tackle succeeds in requiring at least two offensive linemen to block him, all while maintaining his position, then his fellow teammates in the box gain a tactical advantage. This is why NFL teams are willing to pay good nose tackles - like Vince Wilfork - beaucoup dollars beyond the age of 30. Or why the addition of a nose tackle to the Chicago Bears could conceivably "revive the defense".

It's an extremely important position often taken for granted given the lack of big plays or eye-popping stats. Make no mistake, UK is strong at this position and these players carry a lot of weight in more than just the literal sense. It's extremely important for UK to be good at this position if the interior defense is to at least be decent. Failure at this position can ripple into wider systemic failures throughout the front seven.

UK's Employment of Nose Tackles

The nose tackles in UK's scheme last season aligned head-up on the center, also referred to as "zero technique". The nose tackle was rarely, if ever, shaded towards a gap. There he collided with the center 65-80 times over the span of 3-4 hours. There was minimal stunting last season, and they were typically asked to make contact, diagnose the play, and hold their ground. All while maintaining a low pad level, and typically drawing a second block from another fellow 300-pound plus lineman. Piece of cake, right?

Beyond the tactical advantage, an ideal nose tackle can be the hinge that makes a team's front multiple. DJ Elliot wants to do a lot of different things this year, and having a diversely skilled nose tackle makes a multiple defense a lot easier. Not having to sub-out a nose tackle in certain packages provides more options, and helps to fend off the advantage offense's look for when they go hurry-up, no-huddle. A nose tackle with a diverse skill set is nice thing to possess.

One that soaks interior blocks can cause a running back to hesitate to the hole, force him to spill to the outside, or outright collapse the hole. One that folds the pocket forces a quarterback to throw in duress, which itself can impact throwing fundamentals. A truly multiple nose tackle provides more layers such as fire zone blitzing or pass-rushing (sacks, hurries, pass break-ups, and general pressure).

Depth Chart Discussion

Depth Chart (Projected)

Name

Year

2014 Stats

1

Melvin Lewis

RS SR

37 tackles, 2.5 TFL's, 0.5 sacks

2

Matt Elam

SO

10 tackles, 2 PBU's

3

Jacob Hyde

RS SO

N/A

4

Javon Provitt

FR

N/A

Melvin Lewis

Lewis almost certainly be the starter at the beginning of this season, and with another good year will likely be drafted next May. It's hard to believe Lewis is on the verge of being a two-year starter when his signing was almost an after-thought to most UK fans in 2013. He is a good example of how a recruit's star rating doesn't have to define their college career. He has a genuine, "feel good" story.

After a redshirt season in 2013, he started every game in 2014, put up numbers comparable to other great SEC interior linemen despite rarely playing on passing downs, and was frequently praised by the staff last season for following assignments. If Lewis plays more on passing downs this season that will mark a continued evolution in his game.  It would display a shift by the coaching staff that now believes Lewis has become more than just a run-stopper, but is now a reliable interior pass-rusher. He saw the field on passing downs against UofL, but will that quota increase even more this season?

If his game has evolved, it sounds like his mental approach is a big factor, according to DJ Elliot:

...[I]f he continues to progress and work hard and become the leader we need him to be, he's got the good personality, he's played really well and he's been around here for a little bit.

And more from Elliot on his character and improvement:

I think that Melvin, he may be one of the most improved players on our team from the start of him coming here to where he's at now...He's a guy that I am very proud of and feel very confident about at his position, and he's completely earned that. Nothing was given to him, and he didn't walk in here a good player. 

MelvinLewisAthletic

340 pound Melvin Lewis folding the pocket and doing athletic things (h/t Courier-Journal).

Matt Elam

Competing with Lewis will be highly-recruited Matt Elam. I think it's safe to argue this is the best case scenario for all parties involved. Upperclassmen should regularly beat out the underclassmen while still being challenged, and Elam did just that providing valuable minutes on every third series last season. This season might see an uptick -whether due to merit or injury - for Elam, and he'll have to at least hold serve because competition at this position has only gotten fiercer.

Elam probably will continue to see the field solely on rushing downs in 2015. He was massive last year in camp before he had even had a year of proper strength training and nutrition. I expect him to be even stronger this season with more "good" weight added. His ceiling is arguably higher than any other defensive linemen, but he'll likely not reach it this season; however, it will be interesting to see how he's playing come October. Last season against UL-Monroe, Elam abused their former two star center. If he's able to do the same semi-regularly against SEC competition this season that will be a positive sign of progress.

DJ Elliot provided an update on his development this spring:

I think Matt is progressing...Anywhere, any position, any sport, it’s tough to play as a true freshman. He was able to do that and be competitive at times last year, which is impressive. Now he has a year under his belt, he’ll have his first offseason under his belt, he’s going to go into his first spring ever, then his second summer conditioning then his second training camp. We’re right on track with him and we’re pleased with his progress...Matt has to be better technique wise and that’s what we’re working on.

Jacob Hyde

Hyde will reportedly split his time between offense and defense this season, and it will probably be the offensive side where he likely sees the most game action barring injuries. Hyde has been in the program going on three years, which translates to nearly three years of being in proper S&C and nutrition programs. He likely also has a firm understanding of the playbook, and his position's various responsibilities. That is exactly the type of player a team should want at any third string position.

Hyde probably will never usurp Lewis or Elam, but he's very likely someone the coaches feel comfortable playing in a pinch. It's reasonable to assume that Hyde will reliably perform his assignments even if he's largely a role player in 2015. Again, that's an ideal description of any third-string player. If Hyde continues to improve he'll make an increasingly bigger impact in 2016 and 2017 on the defensive side of the ball.

The Rookie

Finally, incoming freshman Javon Provitt may be the best player of the 2015 signing class. He was bigger and stronger than most offensive linemen he faced in high school, but it was his mobility that was impressive suggesting a high ceiling. Critically, college football's defenses who play "multiple" nose tackles - soaking up double teams or performing fire zone blitzing - make the defense less predictable.

Since Stoops has arrived, UK typically removes the nose tackle on passing downs indicating they've yet to feel comfortable pass-rushing with this position. Provitt may be the first of Mark Stoops' nose tackles at UK to see the field during passing downs, and finish the season competing for a SEC-leading sack total for interior linemen. Expect him to redshirt in 2015, and emerge in a few seasons as a fully-formed wrecking ball behemoth with the dexterity of Misty Copeland. Or at least something approximating.


"Known Unknowns"

To paraphrase a former Secretary of Defense, there are some things "we know that we don't know" for the players at this position. Presumably, the coaches have a far better idea, but we, the public, are largely in the dark - especially prior to the season. Here's a few "known unknowns" for your consideration.

  • Assuming no injuries, can Melvin Lewis hold-off Matt Elam and start every game again this season?
  • Will Melvin Lewis establish himself as a top three interior defensive linemen in the SEC?
  • Will the nose tackle position this season be more multiple than it was last season, or will that happen in future seasons?

Outlook

Nose tackle appears to be one of the deepest positions on the team, and projects as a strength in 2015. The first and second string players are both candidates to play on Sundays, and behind those two is a redshirt sophomore capable of contributing. Furthermore, the increasing competition in practice will make them all better.

Good nose tackles are important as the interior of the defense is expected to take away the offense's most direct trajectory to getting upfield: the middle. Depth is also important as these big guys can't play 80 snaps all by their lonesome.  Above average play by the nose tackle will also make the job of the inside linebackers easier. By extension that will help the entire run defense.

This is one position that looks to be a team strength in 2015.