Scouting the Cats: Coaches say Ukwu has chance to become great defensive end at Kentucky

Collins Ukwu taking lead by playing hard 'every day, every play'

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2011 

  • Scouting the Defensive line

    The main man: Junior Collins Ukwu, a defensive end, started every game last season and had 26 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and one sack. Coaches love this weight-room wonder who has gone from a slim 200 to a muscular 255 in his time at UK.

    The supporting cast: The Cats' defensive line, which lost starters Ricky Lumpkin (Cardinals) and DeQuin Evans (Bengals), returns several players with game experience, including starters and part-time starters such as Luke McDermott (6-1, 265), Mark Crawford (6-1, 324) and Taylor Wyndham (6-4, 250). Several others have shown promise: Donte Rumph (6-3, 300), Mister Cobble (6-0, 338) and Antwane Glen (6-3, 273).

    Newcomer to watch: Mister Cobble, a 6-foot, 332-pound sophomore, seems to have his academic house in order and could be a contender at defensive tackle. The former Central star's combination of quickness and power will make him an asset in the new defensive scheme.

    Outlook: Two NFL-caliber players in Lumpkin and Evans will be difficult to replace, but UK seems to have enough coming back to be disruptive for opposing offenses this season. The Cats' returnees are fast off the line. Developing depth and versatility at these positions will be key in the new scheme.

When fall camp got difficult, when the drills got monotonous, when the heat got to be too much, Collins Ukwu never flinched.

He just kept his head down and he kept working.

It's not always easy to pull a compliment out of Kentucky's boisterous co-defensive coordinator, but a question about Ukwu even makes Rick Minter soften a bit.

"He just plays hard every play," Minter said. "He plays hard every day, every play."

The 6-foot-5 junior defensive end doesn't have it in him to quit.

He says watching his mother Susan, who came over from Nigeria 25 years ago, raise four boys and hold down two jobs keeps him going daily.

"If there was someone to look up to, it was always her," he said.

Seeing struggles in his own family and in his football family keep him motivated.

"When you see your teammates hurt or tired, it makes you want to bring your game up much more," he said.

It's that kind of talk that has made Ukwu a favorite among his teammates and his coaches.

"We're getting great leadership out of (Ukwu)," Minter said of the veteran defensive end who has played in 26 games for the Cats. "I've said all along he's going to have a great year for us."

As a sophomore, Ukwu started all 13 games for Kentucky, netting 26 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and one sack. He had career highs of six tackles against both Auburn and Florida. As a reserve redshirt freshman, he had 14 tackles.

Ukwu doesn't just work hard on the football field, but in the weight room, too. He was a scrawny, 200-pound kid playing at La Vergne High School in Tennessee. He got to Kentucky and added 55 pounds to his frame.

He did it in the weight room, adding 10 or 15 pounds of muscle this summer alone. He did it by devouring protein shakes and whatever other foods he could find.

"I pigged out whenever I could," he said with a smile.

He has a Southeastern Conference body. One of his coaches joked recently that Ukwu is the kid you want first off the Kentucky bus to intimidate others.

"He's a full-grown man with a couple of years to play," Minter said. "He's just now coming into his body."

Ukwu almost didn't end up playing at the SEC level even though that was his dream as a high school player. With no full SEC offers, Ukwu committed to Middle Tennessee a week before the signing period.

Kentucky had a scholarship player fall through, and Coach Joker Phillips started poring over film looking for a potential defensive diamond in the rough.

He offered a scholarship to Ukwu, who played only seven games as a high school senior because of injury. But he had 86 tackles (22 for a loss), seven quarterback sacks and three forced fumbles.

"My dream was to play in the SEC," Ukwu said. "I knew I was good enough to compete at this level and was glad they saw it, too"

Coaches from the top boss to his position coach can't say enough about Ukwu.

"He's become a good defensive end, who's got a chance to be a great one around here," Phillips said.

Minter agrees with the idea that Ukwu can be great and adds that he helps his teammates improve, too.

"He's playing like you want an aspiring great player to play like," Minter said. "He's practicing to be great, and we want him to rub off on more and more of our guys. He's practicing to be great and, right now, he's playing really well for us."

But will the scrawny high school kid from La Vergne end up being one of the SEC's elite?

"He's certainly practiced that way; time will tell," defensive line coach David Turner said. "He works extremely hard. He's done the little things we've asked him to do."

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