The magnitude of Melvin Lewis missing the rest of his senior season hit Mark Stoops when the coach visited with his nose guard on Sunday.
"Melvin's worked his tail off, he's overcome a bunch of adversity, he cares so much, he's a great leader, he's playing good football," the Kentucky coach said Monday, announcing that the nose guard will have surgery on his broken leg on Tuesday and miss the rest of the season.
"I mean, he's a big part of the heart and soul of our defense. And to see him and what that means to him, it's very difficult. ... It was tough. He was emotional and it's hard on him. It's hard on all of us."
There will be much talk this week leading up to UK's game at Mississippi State about how Kentucky will go about replacing Lewis.
Whatever transpires, UK has to find answers succinctly.
"All of us have to move on very quickly," Stoops continued. "But it's still very personal when it comes to a guy like Melvin and losing a guy like that."
It might be especially tough for Lewis' likely replacement, sophomore Matt Elam, who was listed as the starting nose guard on the new depth chart.
"Matt is very close with Melvin," Stoops said. "They are very tight off the field as well. Matt really looks up to Melvin and Matt was disappointed for Melvin that he got hurt, but he'll step in and do a good job."
There might be an opportunity for Lewis to play again this season should the Cats advance to a bowl game. The timeline for a fractured fibula is six weeks, Stoops said.
"We need to try to win a few games down the stretch here and win some games and give him an opportunity to play one last time in the blue and white," the coach said.
When asked if he would use Lewis as a rallying cry for his team, Stoops said he didn't plan to spend a lot of time discussing it. Lewis will return to the UK sideline once he recovers from surgery.
"Personally, if it motivates our guys, then so be it," the coach said. "I know a lot of guys care about him, and rightfully so, like we do as a coaching staff. He's been a terrific story, so I certainly don't want that to be his last game for us."
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Lewis' story of just working hard and getting better every day is one of the things that makes the injury so crushing.
"He's a guy that has developed himself into a great player," Eliot said after the Auburn loss. "He came in here and he wasn't a very good player at all. We thought, 'Man, we missed on this guy.'
"And he worked hard, did what we told him to do, he redshirted his first year, and his second year he earned the starting nose guard job and was doing some good things this year."
One of the strangest things from the Cats' loss to Auburn last week was the fourth-and-1 play where UK had just eight players on the field for a punt return.
When asked about it on Monday, Stoops took full responsibility for the miscue, noting that he thought the Tigers were going to go for it.
UK was trying to get a package of players off the field when it went to "punt safe" mode and it caused major confusion.
"We were trying to get them off, and I should have managed that better at the timeout and just subbed one person for one person," Stoops said. "Put the returner in and left a punt safe with that personnel grouping in the game. That's my fault and it could've cost us."
The coach did make a quick joke about his mistake, which didn't prove costly.
"Luckily we had so many guys running off the field we weren't gonna get called with 12," Stoops laughed. "We're fortunate, but that's a coaching error that I've got to do a better job with."
■ Kentucky's coach said the plan is to have kicker Austin MacGinnis, fully recovered from his groin injury, handle kickoffs against Mississippi State. Against Auburn last week, the UK sophomore kicked only field goals and extra points.
Walk-on Miles Butler handled kickoffs for the Cats and Auburn capitalized, with its average drive starting at its own 32-yard line. Comparatively, UK's average field position was its own 24.
■ Backup linebacker Jordan Jones, who missed last week's game with an ankle injury, should be back this weekend, Stoops said.