UK football notebook: Ukwu meeting his potential on D-line

Scrawny recruit meets coaches' projections

Herald-Leader Staff WriterAugust 28, 2011 

UK Football

Collins Ukwu tackled Auburn star Cam Newton (2) during last year's game at Commonwealth Stadium. Ukwu has added 60-plus pounds since coming to Kentucky three years ago.

JOSEPH REY AU

A perfectly sculpted beast, who is lightning quick out of the stance and able to knock back a wall of offensive linemen, doesn't just fall into a head coach's lap every recruiting period.

At least not at places like Kentucky.

"It seems like all the great defensive linemen migrate to the same places," Coach Joker Phillips told the media last week as he was discussing UK junior defensive end Collins Ukwu.

That place where defensive linemen go usually isn't Kentucky.

There are no pre-fab kits to create the perfect defensive lineman, either, so Phillips and his staff have had to "grow" players into that position over the years.

"We've been good at projecting," the coach said. "Do we want to find the great players? Yes. But we also have to project some players. ... We've been a place that has had to grow and project defensive linemen. We've had some pretty good ones around here in my nine years here."

Names like Myron Pryor, Jeremy Jarmon, Corey Peters and DeQuin Evans come to mind.

Ukwu, who developed from a 6-foot-5 player who came in at barely 200 pounds, said he has managed to put on 60-plus pounds of mostly muscle thanks to work in the weight room at Kentucky.

He is thankful that Phillips and others saw a potential Southeastern Conference defensive end in his not-so-SEC body.

Ukwu is the prototype Phillips said he and his staff are looking for.

"He didn't have a huge background in playing football," Phillips said. "We want guys who understand the game, but we also want guys who are long, lean and you throw them in the weight room and just see what they become."

So was Ukwu, who had 26 tackles and started every game last season, a lucky find?

"We don't call it luck," Phillips said with a smile. "We call it a sharp eye."

It's not a new idea. It's something UK has been doing for a long time.

It's a philosophy that Phillips developed in part at Cincinnati, co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter said.

That's when Minter was the head coach and Phillips was one of his assistants.

"He saw that's how we did it and how we found success," Minter said. "You weren't going to beat all the other schools many times in recruiting, but you took the projectables and you put them in the weight room."

It's a concept that makes sense if you think it through, Minter continued.

"It's unfair to coaches and fans if you expect a projectable player to be on the field before his third year," he explained. "Football is the ultimate developmental sport and it's not how you start, it's how you finish."

Collins conundrum

Included in Sunday's Herald-Leader is a college football section, which includes a story about potential stars for Kentucky this season. One of those stars discussed is freshman wide receiver Darryl Collins.

The problem is that Collins won't play this season after dislocating his right kneecap in practice last week, which will require surgery.

News of that injury came a day after the special section went to press. Many of the Herald-Leader's special sections are completed days in advance.

Collins was one of five top-rated freshman receivers UK believed could come in and help immediately. That class has had its share of issues before the season even begins.

Josh Forrest was moved to defense. Nile Daniel did not make it past the NCAA clearinghouse. Collins has his injury.

That leaves only Demarco Robinson and Rashad Cunningham.

Despite the hits that position has taken, receivers coach Tee Martin said UK will be fine.

"Guys who are (left) are guys who have played, so I feel good about the quality of the depth," Martin said.

Some veteran players will get an opportunity to prove themselves.

"Now E.J. Fields, Brian (Adams), Aaron Boyd and all those guys will get a chance to step up and become more of a part of the unit than they might have originally been," Martin said.

Death of the Wildcat?

Kentucky became a household name of sorts with its Wildcat or "Wild Cobb" formation last season behind Mr. Do It All Randall Cobb, who was able to take a direct snap and make plays with both his arm and his legs.

"A lot of schools have called here wanting to know about the 'Wildcat' and what we're doing," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said last week.

Most schools say they have a similar formation already in place, to which Sanders usually replies that it's really all about "who you're snapping it to."

So does that formation have much of a future without Cobb, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers?

"I don't know that we have anybody here that has the same dynamics that Randall had right now that we can snap it to, the combination of speed and strength," Sanders said.

But don't rule it out altogether, he cautioned.

"We have talked about it and we probably will have something in our pocket. Whether we use it or not the first game or so, we'll see."

Scheming around?

In the past few seasons, UK has had two vastly different but impressive guys play at the fullback position. First was the bruising John Conner, who was followed by a more true running back in Moncell Allen.

With Allen graduating, will there be less fullback for the Cats this season?

"Right now we're trying to develop one that can do either one of the two," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said of finding a guy who mimics either player's style. "Whoever it is will probably be playing some of their first college football."

Several games last season Allen was injured and Kentucky made adjustments. The Cats' base plan will probably start similar to that, Sanders explained.

It helps that fullback is a position the coaches are able to "scheme around," he continued.

"It's easier to scheme around not having a fullback than not having a wide receiver," he said. "It's still nice to have a guy, and we have a couple of guys who are coming on and doing a great job for us.

"Obviously we're going to include the fullback in our offense. How quickly those guys develop and how far those guys develop will change that."

Freshman Darrell "D.J." Warren, a 6-foot, 230-pounder out of Alcoa, Tenn., and sophomore Cody Jones, a 5-11, 208-pounder out of Williamsburg, are competing for the position.

Warren specifically caught the eye of junior quarterback Morgan Newton.

After the team's first full scrimmage, Newton was asked who impressed him. The quarterback hesitated for less than two seconds before praising Warren.

"He's come in as a young guy," Newton said. "He hasn't been here very long. He's playing really well for us and I think he's going to be able to contribute."

Oh, baby ...

This has not been my summer of perfect timing.

In the course of the past three months, I've taken over the football beat after the departure of longtime scribe Chip Cosby. While that transition was taking place, my family moved to a new house after nine years at the old one.

And now, with less than a week to go before the Cats' season opener, I will be going on maternity leave to have my second son, who is scheduled to arrive the morning of Sept. 2.

I'm leaving the football beat in the more than capable hands of John Clay, Mark Story and Jerry Tipton, who will be taking turns covering the team until I return in eight weeks.

Please follow their updates daily via the blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com and on Twitter @ukyfootball.

See you in November.

Jennifer Smith covers UK football for the Herald-Leader. This article contains her opinions and observations.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service