The defensive end position is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for the University of Kentucky football team as it works through the dog days of summer to prepare for fall camp.
We all know Jeremy Jarmon won't be around — he's preparing for next month's NFL supplemental draft. The UK coaching staff is hopeful that junior-college transfer DeQuin Evans can provide some help once he gets on campus, and Donte Rumph would be a big help if he can gain eligibility. Another defensive end signee, Demetri Merritt, also has not yet qualified and could be headed to Southwest Mississippi Junior College, which is where former UK signee Mychal Bailey enrolled after not qualifying two years ago.
The only certainties at this point are sophomore Chandler Burden, who played sparingly as a true freshman, and redshirt freshmen Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham.
"Burden has the size and the athletic ability to be a really good player," UK Coach Rich Brooks said in a recent interview. "With he and (Ukwu and Wyndham), those guys are going to be forced into the limelight a little quicker than we anticipated. They have talent, just not the experience."
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True freshman Patrick Ligon is already on campus and might make the rotation by default.
With none of the aforementioned players ever having made a tackle, much less a sack, in a collegiate game, Brooks and defensive coordinator Steve Brown might have to get a little creative in order to have a consistent pass rush in 2009. Brooks hasn't ruled out a position change or two to add another body to the mix.
"We're just going to have to see when camp starts. We always try to get our best players on the field," Brooks said.
Another way to help the pass rush would be to do what the coaching staff did with Johnny Williams last year. Williams, who's now in camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was technically a strong-side linebacker. But he lined up at end in third-down and passing situations and led the team with five sacks.
Brooks didn't mention names when discussing potential linebackers who could chip in at end, but seniors Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell fit the mold. Both have the size: Johnson is 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds, and Maxwell goes 6-3, 244. Playing end on passing downs would also give Johnson a chance to improve his sack total (2.5 for his career), which in turn would make him more attractive to NFL teams next spring. Maxwell plays on the strong side as Williams did.
Tackle Ricky Lumpkin also has the athletic ability and explosiveness to move outside in a pinch.
How they got there
UK's lack of bodies and experience at defensive end was a combination of some bad luck with injuries and some near misses on the recruiting trail.
The 2005 class brought a pair of solid contributors in Jeremy Jarmon and Ventrell Jenkins, but signee Jamaal Jackson never made it to campus. Jamil Paris and Josh Minton were both three-star recruits in 2006, but knee problems ended Minton's career before it started. And Paris wasn't cleared by team doctors because of a heart condition. Paris is now at Florida A&M and will play next fall with former Wildcats quarterback Curtis Pulley.
Kentucky scored a coup in 2007 with the signing of heralded four-star end D.J. Stafford, but Stafford never could get himself in good enough academic standing to enroll. Two other defensive end signees from that class (Charles Mustaafa and Antwane Glenn) are now playing tackle.
The Wildcats had a commitment in 2008 from three-star end Willie Bohannon, but he withdrew his pledge and signed with Tennessee. Bohannon is now battling for backup reps under new Vols coach Lane Kiffin. UK also went down to the wire with three-star end Michael McAdoo but lost out to North Carolina. McAdoo had nine tackles and 21/2 sacks as a true freshman last year and is expected to be a key cog in the Tar Heels' defensive line in 2009.
New generation of Grangers
The first wave of UK recruits from the famed LaGrange (Ga.) program have slowly started to walk out the door. Wesley Woodyard left in 2007. Braxton Kelley followed the year after. DeMoreo Ford is still around but is now on the coaching staff.
But that doesn't mean the LaGrange pipeline is dying away. Incoming freshmen Qua Huzzie and Tristan Johnson arrived on campus last month, joining sophomore cornerback Randall Burden and redshirt freshman walk-on kicker Pat Simmons as LaGrange alumni participating in UK's summer workouts.
"Everything's going smooth so far," Huzzie said. "I'm in college now, so I knew I'd have to step it up a notch."
The 5-10, 205-pound Huzzie expects to get a look as both a weak- and strongside linebacker. The starters seem to be set, with Micah Johnson in the middle, Sam Maxwell on the strong side and Danny Trevathan on the weak side, but the backup positions are in flux. Huzzie and fellow freshman Ridge Wilson could put themselves in position to play with strong fall camps. Wilson, who participated in the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star basketball series last weekend, is set to arrive on campus this week.
Huzzie has already drawn comparisons to Woodyard, who's in his second year with the Denver Broncos.
"Everybody's been asking me If I'm better than Wes or if I'm better than Braxton," Huzzie said. "Only time will tell. I know one thing, Wes was a headhunter, and I'm going to come and try and do the same thing."
Cats in the NFL
Here's a listing of Wildcats on NFL rosters as teams go through OTAs (organized team activities) and prepare for the start of camp:
Keenan Burton (St. Louis), Ventrell Jenkins (Buffalo), Steve Johnson (Buffalo), Myron Pryor (New England), Wesley Woodyard (Denver), Jacob Tamme (Indianapolis), Rafael Little (Tennessee), Garry Williams (Carolina), Tim Masthay (Indianapolis), Marlon McCree (Jacksonville), Johnny Williams (Jacksonville), Otis Grigsby (Minnesota), Glenn Holt (Minnesota), Glenn Pakulak (New Orleans), Andre Woodson (New York Giants).
Just a reminder, all summer workouts are closed to the public and media, which means no on-location reports will be available.