Kentucky’s new defensive line coach takes his index finger and taps his temple a few times.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working more on here,” explained Derrick LeBlanc, “than the physical part of it.”
What he doesn’t say is that the mental part he is teaching comes from his players learning to live with a little bit of physical discomfort.
To become a top-10 rushing or a top-30 scoring defense — both of which Kentucky is four weeks into the season — the Cats’ defensive line had to get back to some basics.
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Those basics started with a need to get lower to the ground to gain the upper hand over opposing offensive linemen.
It sounds simple enough: getting a defensive lineman to play lower than the guy across the line from him for four quarters.
But it’s not.
Enter the chute. It’s not a new-fangled, complicated sports science device.
The chute is a flat, 5-foot-10 black, mesh tarp on top of metal poles that the UK players do their drills underneath.
Agility and footwork drills all happen under this tarp, which is shorter than all of the players practicing beneath it.
“That forces them to bend their knees, play with good pad level,” LeBlanc said of his workout friend. “We do a lot of our work under there and enforce it.”
An old coach of LeBlanc’s used to remind him that “the hardest thing to do when you’re tired is bend your knees and stay low in good football position,” the UK coach said.
By forcing the players into the chute more than a few times daily, LeBlanc is trying to create some habits that they can maintain even when they’re exhausted in the fourth quarter of a game
“It’s more natural now,” LeBlanc said of workouts under the chute. “They complained about it the first time we did it. Now they just get under there and they get to work.”
What kind of complaints did the new coach get?
“I can’t say those words here,” he smiled.
It isn’t always fun, but defensive lineman Matt Elam said he can see a huge difference. It’s helped the senior statistically, too. Just four games into the season, Elam is just two tackles shy of his total tackles last season (nine).
“We start off being under the chute, just getting low the whole time before we even come out to practice,” Elam said. “Practice is going, we get back under the chute. Everything like stutter steps being low, working the base techniques just being low. It’s helpful.”
There’s not a more important position to be technically sound at than the defensive line, Coach Mark Stoops said. He’s seen a group that has improved in that area this season.
“There’s a lot that goes into it that people really don’t understand, and I think Derrick has done a nice job of organizing it and repping it and getting them better at some things,” Stoops said of the defensive line. “They’re much better.”
The big push by Kentucky’s defensive coaches is helping the defensive line create a new line of scrimmage, forcing the guys in front of them backward instead of just maintaining position.
So many times on film last season, coaches could point to an opposing offensive line moving UK’s defensive front backward at the snap.
“Instead of just playing on the line of scrimmage, we’re trying to get to them on their side of the ball,” Elam said.
It’s all with good reason, Stoops said, pointing to statistics from last season on rushing in the Southeastern Conference. The team that rushed for just one more yard than its opponent had an 80 percent chance of winning the game. If a team outgained its opponent by 50 yards or more, the win percentage jumped to 88 percent, Stoops said.
“So, rush defense and rushing the ball is pretty important,” said the coach, whose team has outgained opponents by 58 yards per game on the ground. The Cats have only been outgained by one team all season: Florida, which topped UK 28-27 last week.
This season, UK’s defensive line is getting better initial push. And changing that line of scrimmage can mean the difference between allowing a 5-yard run and creating a negative-yardage play.
“That’s huge for us because we’ve changed the line of scrimmage so much,” linebacker Courtney Love said of watching game tape this season. “That comes with the first point of contact. That all starts with the defensive line. I think they’re doing a wonderful job.”
Eastern Michigan at Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)