LEXINGTON, Ky. — Depth and experience have been two buzz words this offseason for Mark Stoops and his staff. And while it’s largely true for Kentucky, no one has hidden the improvements the Cats still need to make on the defensive line.
First, the numbers. Kentucky ranked 12th in the SEC last season, giving up 228 rushing yards per game. Only Missouri and Ole Miss were worse. Kentucky was 10th in the SEC in rushing touchdowns allowed and 11th in the 5.15 yards it gave up per rush. For comparison, Alabama held opponents to 2.01 yards per rush. No SEC team faced more rushing attempts than the Wildcats in 2016. The Wildcats surrendered 2,966 rushing yards last season — a stat that placed them at the bottom of the league.
Kentucky’s numbers against the run in the SEC would have been more impressive if nonconference games were taken out. The Cats were more toward the middle of the pack against conference opponents, allowing the eighth-most rushing yards and ranking 10th in yards allowed per run.
Sacks and tackles for loss usually involve the whole front seven, not just the defensive line, but those numbers were below average as well. Kentucky was 12th in sacks and 12th in tackles for loss in the SEC against conference foes.
Between last season and now, Kentucky lost defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh to Maryland and starting defensive end Courtney Miggins to graduation. Projected starting defensive end Alvonte Bell was dismissed from the team.
Derrick LeBlanc was hired as Kentucky’s defensive line coach, and defensive coordinator Matt House has been optimistic about what LeBlanc’s done with the position.
“I think that group improved through spring and has improved through the summer,” House said Tuesday at Kentucky’s kickoff luncheon. “It’s a group that there’s a lot of potential. I think Derrick’s done a great job of detailing the technique at that position, and I think [Stoops] has made a big point and challenged those guys all spring. I’m really, really excited to see them in training camp ’cause I do think there’s been a steady improvement.”
In the 3-4 scheme, Kentucky’s starters up front on the preseason depth chart are junior Adrian Middleton at defensive tackle, senior Naquez Pringle at nose guard and sophomore T.J. Carter at defensive end. Redshirt freshman Kordell Looney backs up Middleton, senior Matt Elam backs up Pringle and junior Kengera Daniel backs up Carter.
“T.J., I’d say, got better up front,” Stoops said Tuesday. “Adrian had a good end of the season. Hopefully Adrian will continue to play well. We need him, too.”
Kentucky needs all six pieces listed on the two-deep and then some. It’s just not clear who will be viable options behind them. Junior defensive tackle Tymere Dubose played in 11 games last season. Senior nose guard Jacob Hyde also saw limited time. Defensive tackles Looney and Ja’Quize Cross redshirted last season, and they could develop into rotational players this year.
The path to playing time doesn’t look clear for any newcomers — at least not initially. Junior college transfer Phil Hoskins is rehabilitating from shoulder surgeries and won’t be ready for the start of the season. Defensive end/outside linebacker Chris Whittaker has been told he’ll redshirt. Defensive end Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald is one of the more physically impressive prospects, but he’s still learning how to play football and won’t likely be ready as a freshman. It’s not yet known if freshman defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna could carve out a role.
“There’s a lot of questions marks about our defensive line, but like Matt [House] said, I think Coach LeBlanc and our defensive staff has worked hard to get these guys better,” Stoops said. “They’re challenged. It’s important to them. They don’t want to hear this talk anymore. They’ve worked really hard, and hopefully they’ll step up.”