It was an off-handed observation on the field at Commonwealth Stadium for Kentucky’s annual Media Day.
“It’s been crazy,” UK defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said that morning. “This is the only place I’ve been where each year I’ve had three new starters.”
That side comment is a big part of the reason the Kentucky defense struggled in the second half against Southern Miss on Saturday and stands to have similar problems this weekend at Florida.
Because UK spent so much of its fall camp getting its three new defensive line starters enough reps to make them effective, because UK coaches spent so much time getting a mostly new front seven prepared to play as a unit, they didn’t feel confident rolling in new guys. Their reps were too limited.
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The result was 80-plus snaps for many of the starters and an exhausted defense that allowed the Golden Eagles to roar back from 25 points down and win 44-35.
“As the momentum got going against us, you sometimes are a little hesitant to put in some guys that haven’t had a lot of experience,” Coach Mark Stoops explained in his Monday post mortem.
That has to change ultimately or Kentucky could see a lot of the same results. Only 10 other teams nationally gave up more rushing yards than UK’s 262 yielded to Southern Miss last week (151 of those came in the second half).
Only 14 teams in the country gave up more total yards than the 520 UK permitted and only 15 other teams allowed more points in their opener than the Cats.
Situational and statistical evidence suggest the starters are better with some rest. Southern Miss had six of its seven series end in either a punt or a turnover. Then the Golden Eagles started “slowly chipping away” as offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson decribed it this week, and scored on the next seven possessions.
“I was disappointed in getting blocked and getting driven off the ball late in the game,” Stoops said. “Early in the game, it wasn’t about just being soft. It was about being more precise in what we’re doing.”
Most Southern Miss scores came off of long, sustained drives that morphed into 96 total plays with the Kentucky defense on the field. Most of those snaps went to the starters.
That has to change, Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said, especially with UK’s next game coming in the heat and humidity at The Swamp.
“We’re working to solve the problem,” Eliot said. “We need to get more players on the field. We need to get more guys in the rotation. And so, you know, every day in practice is crucial.”
Players that should expect to get some snaps include nose guard Naquez Pringle, who could give a break to starter Matt Elam, who played more than 70 plays.
“That’s a little too much for him,” Brumbaugh said. “I challenged the guys this week and said we’ve got to get some more guys in there who can step in and help.”
Expect to see Tymere Dubose, who is still coming off a knee injury, start to get more reps in practice, which could lead to more game action.
Pringle, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound junior-college transfer who arrived in January, sounded ready for the extra work. The January enrollee said the nose guard spot is one of the toughest positions to learn and he’s coming along as quickly as he can.
He’s been learning the plays and improving, he said.
“The more I play, the more I get out there and play, the better I get,” Pringle said. “Just going through the routine, getting better every day.”
Coaches like what they see.
“Naquez is extremely strong, he’s a big load, he’s hard to move,” Stoops said. “He can knock people off the ball.”
And also look for more of true freshman T.J. Carter.
“T.J., for his size, is extremely athletic and physical,” Stoops said of the 6-foot-4, 275-pounder. “T.J. has a lot of talent as a defensive lineman. We’re wanting to get both of them on the field and trying to get them ready.”
The defensive line isn’t the only place where reinforcements will be added. Also look for Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster to get in the rotation more after mostly spending time on special teams in the opener, coaches said.
Laster might have been a victim of his own versatility, first seeing time as an outside linebacker before being moved inside and then finally outside again more recently. Injuries might necessitate him getting more snaps quickly.
“He’s catching up on his assignments there and getting better every day,” Eliot said of Laster.
The transfer said he’s ready to get on the field.
“When my opportunity comes, just step in and show what I can do,” Laster said. “I sat out for a whole year, I’ve been preparing. … But whenever my opportunity comes, just take full advantage of that.”
Players like linebacker Jordan Bonner, who didn’t arrive on campus until August, might require even more time.
“He’s in that situation where he’s trying to learn his assignments and technique so we can put him out there and we can feel confident that he’ll do the right thing,” Eliot said.
Halting the turnstile
The larger question goes back to Brumbaugh’s initial offhanded comment about how UK has had to break in new starters each season of the Stoops era.
That answer is a little more complicated. Most obviously, UK has struggled to recruit more than a couple of Southeastern Conference caliber defensive linemen.
The Cats have been able to develop some junior college players like Melvin Lewis and C.J. Johnson, but they’re a temporary fix because of their short time on campus.
And then some general bad luck has come with the loss of Jason Hatcher, who was thrown off the team after legal troubles, and Regie Meant, who had what Stoops called a “personal issue” that caused him to leave the program in August among others.
With no seniors in his turnstile of a defensive line, Brumbaugh is hopeful he won’t be seeing these same issues in the future.
“Our motto here is recruit and develop, and now we have three good young freshmen who have come in,” he said of Carter, Kordell Looney and Ja’Quize Cross. “So now we’ll be able to develop some guys behind those guys. It’s going to be really good.”
Kentucky at Florida
When: 3:30 p.m.