Going into last season, the wide receivers were perceived to be a question mark for the University of Kentucky football team after losing Keenan Burton, Steve Johnson and Jacob Tamme to the NFL Draft.
Sure enough, the young, inexperienced receivers struggled mightily to find their way for much of the season.
Now the receivers are a year older and viewed as one of the most improved groups on the team, and it's the defensive line's turn to be the question mark.
Gone are tackle Myron Pryor, a sixth-round draft choice of the Patriots; end Jeremy Jarmon, a third-round pick of the Redskins in the supplemental draft; and end Ventrell Jenkins, who signed a free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills before being cut earlier this month.
Junior defensive tackle Ricky Lumpkin said he's well aware that he and his line mates will be under the microscope this fall.
"I think we're looked at as the weakest link on the team, but we just have to come out here every day and work with each other and feel each other out," Lumpkin said. "Everybody's starting to mesh. It's a process. There'll be movement up and down the depth chart. We just have to get the best people on the field."
The one constant for UK is senior Corey Peters. He's durable (playing in 37 of 40 games in three years), consistent and productive.
And Lumpkin's presence in the lineup will go a long way to boost the fortunes of the Wildcat D-line. A hip injury forced him to redshirt as a freshman, and he missed six games the next year when the hip flared up. He managed to play 11 games in 2008 but battled a high ankle sprain for much of the season.
Lumpkin has broken down his season into phases. Phase I was to get through spring healthy, which he did. Phase II was to stay in one piece during the summer, which he also did. Phase III is making it through fall camp, which he's less than a week away from accomplishing. And Phase IV is having an injury-free 2009.
"One of the biggest question marks about me is if I can stay healthy," Lumpkin said. "I realize that. Hopefully I can do it. I don't want to say that I will because I don't want to jinx myself. But it's one of those things I know I have to do."
Lumpkin also must overcome the mental hurdle that comes with having a rash of injuries.
"I've been hindered," Lumpkin said. "I'm not going to lie; there are times when it's been in my head. Oh please, don't let this happen. I think before every game the past two years, I said to myself, 'Please don't get hurt.' That's one of the things I'm going to have to get out of my head this year."
Behind Peters and Lumpkin at tackle are junior-college transfer Mark Crawford and junior Shane McCord. Crawford participated in spring practice and is trying to adjust to SEC football.
"Mark's learning how to play the way we want to play, not how he played in junior college," defensive line coach Rick Petri said. "But he's very powerful, got a high motor, loves the game and plays with a lot of energy."
The most worrisome position is defensive end. The Cats have bodies there, but not a lot of experience. Sophomore Chandler Burden is the only end on the roster to have seen game action, and that was limited.
But Coach Rich Brooks isn't ready to push the panic button. He thinks Burden, junior-college transfer DeQuin Evans and redshirt freshman Collins Ukwu are talented enough to give the Cats stability. And linebackers Micah Johnson and Danny Trevathan could move up to end occasionally in passing situations.
"I don't think I'll really know until we play, but we certainly have players that are physical and do some things, and there's definitely competition," Brooks said. "I feel pretty good about the ability there; I just need to see the execution."
Brooks has been highly complimentary of Evans. About the only thing slowing Evans down at this point is a nagging hamstring pull that has forced him to miss several days of practice.
"It's been irritating, but I've just got to be patient through it all," Evans said.
If the power of positive thinking speeds up the healing process, Evans should be just fine. When asked about the injury, he said, "You've just got to have good thoughts about it. Rub it down, take care of it, pamper it."
Back to Brooks' original point: The line may end up being OK, but until the lights go on, you just never know.
"There's a big difference between out here (in practice) and a game," Petri said. "There's people cheering, a lot of noise, and you find out how guys react. Do they fall back on technique, do they fall back on what they were taught, or do they go the other way? That's what we'll have to see."