Football notebook

UK football notebook: In SEC, coaches say D-lines lead to championships

championships start with teams strong up front

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJuly 31, 2011 

Want to know why the Southeastern Conference has won five straight national championships in football?

The answer is simple, coaches from around the league said last week.

It starts up front.

Coaches like Arkansas' Bobby Petrino, who has coached at every level in various leagues and conferences, said it's not about the coaches or the quarterbacks, it's about the defensive line.

"The thing that separated the SEC from everybody else in America was the defensive front, the speed, athleticism on the edges, athleticism inside," Petrino said at SEC Media Days in Birmingham. "I found that out when I came back as a head coach in the league."

Coaches like Florida's Will Muschamp, who spent a few years coaching in the not-so-shabby Big 12, said on film, the D-line is the clear difference. In other conferences, there might be two or three teams that dominate the line of scrimmage, but not in the SEC, he said.

"Top to bottom in our league — you watch every week when you turn on an SEC film — there's going to be some dominating players up front, not just in one or two teams, but from top to bottom in our league," he said. "That's the biggest difference in our league and other leagues."

Coach Joker Phillips agreed. He said for proof, one only needs to look at the win-loss columns at Kentucky recently.

"When we've had good defensive linemen ... that's when we've won eight games and had a chance to win eight, nine, 10 games," Phillips said.

The coach said he has high hopes about UK's defensive front this season.

"This defensive line we have this year is older and a year more mature," he said. "You'll see some major results this year."

One thing that UK sometimes has to do is create top defensive linemen; they don't just show up on campus.

Phillips, who referred to it as "growing" or "creating" defensive linemen, pointed to players like junior defensive end Collins Ukwu, who arrived on campus weighing 205 pounds and is now 260 and set to anchor the defensive front.

Ukwu, who had 26 tackles last season including 1.5 for a loss and one sack, was mentioned specifically by co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter as a potential star on the line this season.

"He's going to have an outstanding year for us," Minter told the UK Kickoff Luncheon crowd on Friday at the Hyatt.

The Cats will have to replace some serious production up front, though, like tackle Ricky Lumpkin, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals last week, and end DeQuin Evans, who signed with Cincinnati, Minter said.

Arkansas' Petrino said he knows one thing, he wouldn't want to be an offensive lineman in the SEC.

"To be an offensive lineman you have to back up, work yourself backward, have some of the best athletes in the world coming at you going forward full speed," the Hogs coach said.

Funny business

This has been the week of the luncheon for Cats coaches.

First it was the Governor's Cup luncheon on Thursday and on Friday it was the season kickoff luncheon.

A week away from things getting serious in college football, there was no shortage of joking around by coaches and coordinators.

Here are some of the best:

■ UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders told a full ballroom at the Hyatt on Friday that he had many fans tell him how funny he was at the event the season before.

But the coach was low key this time around.

"You lose your starting quarterback; you lose your fullback; you lose your tailback and top two receivers, you don't make any jokes as the offensive coordinator," Sanders said.

■ Sanders also turned to UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart at the head table and noted: "No offense, Mitch, but the thing fans are going to notice more than the (new) video boards is that Randall Cobb isn't out there anymore."

■ Sanders said he's learned not to make any promises, noting the last time he did, it led to "22 years of marriage and two kids."

Rick Minter, the new co-defensive coordinator, followed that up with a zinger of his own.

"I'm not quite in the same boat Randy is," he said. "I've broken a couple of promises. That's why I'm here by myself. I've broken them a couple of times, but it was always her fault."

Role reversals

When Joker Phillips decided to make changes on defense, he didn't spend a long time looking for candidates.

He knew immediately that he wanted Rick Minter to take over the defense.

"He's been a mentor to me for a long time," Phillips said of Minter, whom Phillips worked under at Cincinnati in 1997 and 1998. "I've always talked to Rick about major moves that I made."

And Minter was happy to join Phillips at UK, even if it meant taking orders from his former employee, whom he hopes to help make SEC Coach of the Year one day soon.

"We want to play 14 games, that's our program goal," Minter said. "We want our head ball coach to be the coach everyone talks about in the league."

The transition from boss to bossed around hasn't always been flawless, Phillips quipped at SEC Media Days. He told a story of a staff meeting when he asked Minter to bring someone specific to dinner at the Phillips' house. The UK coach laughed as he finished the story.

"I said, 'You work for me now,'" Phillips said. "I had to let him know."

Camp with a cause

Kentucky's players will report for practice on Thursday, with Media Day on Friday and then Fan Day on Saturday.

When Phillips was asked what he hoped to glean from the Cats' camp this season, the coach's list was long and distinguished.

"We have to find out who our play makers are," he said. "We lost a lot of production on offense. We've got to find out who to get the ball to. We've got a lot of candidates. ... We need to be able to throw the ball efficiently and run the ball efficiently.

"On defense, we need to learn the schemes, get our best personnel on the field. ... On special teams, we've got to find out who our returners are."

Jennifer Smith covers UK football for the Herald-Leader. This article contains her opinions and observations. Reach her at jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Read her blog at Kentucky.com and follow her on Twitter @jenheraldleader.

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